Gov. Phil Murphy detailed what the proposed "Garden State Guarantee" would mean for New Jersey college students if enacted in a Wednesday visit to William Paterson University, and it includes changes benefiting students from all financial backgrounds.

The program’s main feature is that it would make two years at public four-year colleges or universities tuition-free for students with household incomes of $65,000 or less, similar to what is now available at community colleges. In fact, students who complete community college on time and then transfer to a four-year school could have all four years of tuition and fees covered.

It would also require colleges to develop a sliding-scale tuition pricing structure so the benefits of a lower-cost education don’t disappear for incomes over $65,000. And tuition prices for students would be locked in place for the duration of their four- or five-year academic program.

“So if you start, the Guarantee would say that for your cohort, if you graduate on time, if you get out in the time that they’re telling you it takes to go full-time and get out, your tuition would stay the same no matter what your income is,” said Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis.

Murphy said the Community College Opportunity Grant program, CCOG, has been successful since its creation in 2018 and wants to apply a similar concept to four-year institutions.

“There’s no other state in America that offers these programs, so this is full-on Jersey,” Murphy said.

The program is allotted $50 million in the proposed budget, though Murphy said the grants wouldn’t be available until the fall 2021 semester, presuming lawmakers agree to start the program.

“This is a big program. You can’t snap your finger or turn a light switch and expect this thing to get up and running,” Murphy said. “It’s going to take us a while. And it’s going to take marketing this program, both to seniors as well as to folks who are in community college considering transferring to a four-year university or college.”

Murphy promised to create the tuition-free community college as a candidate in 2017, when he said it would not include an income-eligibility cutoff. That threshold was first set at $45,000, then increased to $65,000, with the income limits in place to account for the limited availability of state funding.

Now, the concept is being duplicated in four-year colleges before being expanded to cover all community college students. There are currently around 7,500 students enrolled in CCOG.

“We never said we weren’t going to get there overnight. And we’re holding the Community College Opportunity Grant number at $30 million because we want to make sure the population catches up with the dollars. We’re completely confident it will, and then we start to, God willing, crank up the eligible adjusted gross family income numbers to pull in more people,” Murphy said.

“This is not one pitted against the other,” Ellis said. “This is all complementary, and we are as committed as ever to the Community College Opportunity Grant. We know that as more students find out about that, the program will grow over time. And then we’ll grow this as well.”

Programs that completely cover tuition for low-income students similar to what Murphy is proposing already exist at William Paterson, New Jersey City University and the Camden and Newark campuses of Rutgers University.

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