A free community college education for all who qualify? That sounds like a great idea to New Jersey’s county-college community.
“This is a really big deal,” says Dr. Lawrence Nespoli, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, in reaction to President Barack Obama’s proposal in his State of the Union speech for free community college. To qualify under the Obama plan, students would have to attend community college at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA and make steady progress toward completing their program.
The proposal—dubbed America’s College Promise—requires Congressional approval. It would expand on the decade-old NJ Stars program, a merit-based scholarship that covers community college tuition for outstanding high school graduates.
“The details about the program will come later,” says Nespoli. “But the message—that community colleges are an important player in our country’s higher-education system—may be inspiring people who otherwise may have thought college wasn’t for them.”
Community college is already a good deal—just $4,000 per year for full-time students in New Jersey. But Nespoli says the cost has gone up about 20 percent over the last five years. In surveys by Nespoli’s organization, Garden State residents have identified cost as the number one hurdle to attending college. “Even though our tuition is a great bargain compared to other higher-education providers,” Nespoli says, “it can still be expensive for middle-class families that have multiple students going to college.”
Should the President’s plan become law, it would likely spike the number of students applying to community colleges. Nespoli cites Tennessee, where he says 90 percent of graduating high school students applied to community colleges this year following enactment of Tennessee Promise, a new plan that provides free community college in that state. Officials there expect the actual enrollment of high school graduates in the program to be in the range of 40 to 50 percent. “Here in New Jersey, community colleges are enrolling about 25 percent of their local high school graduating classes,” says Nespoli. “I suspect that if America’s Promise were to become law, we would see that 25 percent move in the direction of the 40 to 50 percent that Tennessee first anticipated.”
Can our county colleges handle such a surge? “I am confident that we have sufficient infrastructure in place to handle potential increases in enrollment,” says Dr. Edward Yaw, president of the County College of Morris. “We will watch Tennessee’s experience very carefully to fully assess potential impacts.” CCM has seen more than 45,000 students earn degrees since it opened in 1968.
The state’s county colleges are already poised to expand their facilities, thanks to $200 million in new funding under Governor Chris Christie’s higher-education bond act, passed in 2013.
Education leaders say the Obama plan would not adversely affect the state’s four-year schools. “I do not expect a significant impact on the number of students who choose to start their higher education experience at four-year colleges,” says Yaw. Nespoli agrees. “More students coming to community colleges would be a good thing for everyone,” he says. “Think about it. With more students earning associate degrees, more students will want to transfer to our four-year colleges to earn their bachelor’s degrees.”
What’s more, says Nespoli, “we have a state law that guarantees that students who graduate with an associate degree from a New Jersey community college [can] transfer to a New Jersey four-year college with full junior status.”
We applaud the President’s plan, but there is still the question of how it will be funded. That needs to be resolved before we can succeed at creating new opportunities for those historically shut out from higher education.