A bill that would require state colleges to track the graduation rates of students who get state Tuition Aid Grants to pay for college easily passed the state Assembly on Monday.

The legislation comes after a February 2013 Watchdog Report in The Press of Atlantic City showed that while the state Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, or HESAA, had distributed almost $1.4 billion in TAG funds to low-income students over the previous five years, there was no public data collected to show how many students who receive the grants actually graduate.

Bill sponsor Assemblywoman Celeste Riley, D-Cumberland, Gloucester, Salem said it is important to start collecting that data to be sure that the funds are being used effectively to help students succeed.

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“This is public money,” she said. “We should know if the students are successful or not.”

Riley, who chairs the Assembly Higher Education Committee, was surprised there was no data and sponsored the bill to collect it and make it public.

She said while there was some concern that if the graduation rates are poor, the program could be cut, she believes the data could actually improve the program.

“Higher education has to be more accountable,” she said. “You can’t just say we’ll enroll you, take your money, let you get loans, then not help you graduate. We want the colleges to be partners in student success, and you start that process with data.”

She said colleges could use the data to develop strategies to help struggling students.

“We are giving (students) money because we want them to be successful,” she said. “We don’t want them to fail. If they are, we should know why and how to help them.”

Established in 1978, TAG funds were originally supposed to cover 100 percent of public college tuition and 50 percent of private college tuition for eligible students. As costs have risen, the grants have not kept pace, but they still help supplement other financial aid. The number of students eligible for TAG funds has also continued to rise.

According to state data, in 2012-13 some 74,000 students were expected to receive grants of as much as $2,534 at community colleges, $6,704 at state colleges, $9,104 at Rutgers and $11,550 at private independent colleges. The total for the year was about $330 million, more than twice the $150 million allocated in fiscal 2000.

State college officials said they support the bill, which must still be approved by the state Senate, then signed into law by the governor. Riley said she is hoping the Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, is approved before the end of the Legislative session this month. The vote in the Assembly was 74 yes, two no, and one abstention.

If approved, the data would be collected beginning with the 2013-14 academic year.

Jacob Farbman, spokesman for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, said they supported the bill once it was amended to include a provision to also include students who transfer to another college, since many students start at a community college, but graduate from a four-year college.

“We are fully ready to comply,” he said.

Paul Shelly, spokesman for the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, said the state is spending a lot of money on TAG and the public should get more information about recipients’ progress.

“You really can’t argue against this,” he said. “So much of the higher education budget is student aid. We should keep an eye on it and have some accountability. It could point to some corrective action that might help more students succeed.”

The bill would require colleges to provide the data by Sept. 1 of each year. HESAA would be required to post the data on its website by Nov. 1 of each year. The data would include the two-year, four-year, and/or six-year average graduation rates at county colleges, four-year public and independent colleges, and proprietary degree-granting institutions.

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