Speedier degrees, tax deductions: How NJ can reduce student debt
A state commission that studied college affordability has made 20 recommendations, about half of which are aimed at restraining costs by getting students their degrees faster.
The proposals, which are being turned into 11 bills in the Legislature, call for four-year schools to develop three-year degrees that include summer classes, allow students to finish three of their four years at community colleges and ensure high school seniors the opportunity to earn 15 college credits.
Rowan College at Gloucester County President Frederick Keating, who chaired the commission, said one major theme is reducing the amount of time it takes students to earn a degree.
“We anchor all of our points around the issue that the time a student spends in attaining a degree is critical academically and most importantly in this conversation financially,” Keating said.
“Higher education has to restructure itself,” he said. “High schools, community colleges and senior partners and college/universities in the state of New Jersey have to come together and redesign a give-and-take that allows an individual to seamlessly move through that maze with clear understanding, financial stability, minimal cost and quality delivery of the education that they’ll receive.”
Half the proposals are focused on the financial side — including an emphasis on financial literacy in the high school curriculum and better programs for students and parents to understand college financing, including the consequences of failing to repay student loans.
“They’re drowning in debt. They don’t know what they’re going to do with regard to the next step,” Keating said. “They entered into the relationship of higher education in my opinion not knowledgeable of the financial implications as well as the educational implication.”
“I can say to you very honestly as a grandparent, parent and as a community college president, we don’t know how to finance the education of our children and grandchildren,” Keating said.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, who advocated for the study commission, says the report’s release is important.
“This is a big moment for us. We’re actually going to show people that we can reduce cost,” said Sweeney. “How many young Einsteins – really, that’s what we’re talking about – have been passed over because they couldn’t afford to get the education to reach the greatness that’s inside them?”
The College Affordability Study Commission report is 46 pages and includes 20 recommendations – though for most items there are no price tags. Sweeney said some will cost the state, others will save colleges money and that many can help quickly.
“They delivered what we wanted – which was find us ways to reduce cost now, not dependent on state budgets,” Sweeney said.
The report recommends an additional $63 million for the Tuition Aid Grant program.
It also calls for revamping and restoring the NJ STARS program into one that provides free tuition at county college for the top 20 percent in high-school classes and $2,000 per semester scholarships at four-year schools for the top 10 percent. County college graduates with a 3.25 grade point average would also get $2,000 per semester to continue at four-year schools. No cost estimate was given.
Keating says he realizes aid programs like NJ STARS and TAG have been clipped due to budget cuts.
“But we’re asking for consideration to not have to necessarily reinvent but to just reinvest,” he said.
“Some things are going to cost a little bit of money. Some will, and we’ll work towards getting those funded,” Sweeney said. “This didn’t get broken overnight, and it’s not going to be fixed overnight. But there are some pieces of legislation here that can immediately make a difference.”
Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, said the scholarship changes would help families, as would a proposal to provide state income tax deductions for interest on student loans for families with joint incomes up to $160,000 or single incomes to $80,000. No cost estimate for that was given.
“In today’s economy, a higher education should not be a luxury for the wealthy,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham also said families would benefit from the so-called “3 Plus 1” programs, through which students spend a third year at community college, then go to the senior college to complete their final year and get a bachelor’s degree.
“I think parents are going to love this 3-Plus-1 because the idea of sending their kids local, someplace that’s local, saves on transportation, saves on housing costs, and then allowing them to have one year at a four-year college is going to be perfect for them,” Cunningham said.
Rowan University and their partner county colleges in Burlington and Gloucester counties started “3 Plus 1” degrees this semester.
Sweeney said the proposals won’t be easy to get passed and implemented.
“I can tell you it will meet resistance because no one goes along with change easily,” Sweeney said.