The state’s community college presidents hope to come up with a plan to save the NJ STARS scholarship program in time for this year’s high school graduating class.

“Parents have been counting on this,” said Jacob Farbman, spokesman for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.

Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed budget eliminates funding for a new freshmen class in September. It provides funding only for students who are already in the program. High school and college counselors had been recruiting for the program, unaware the cut was coming.

NJ STARS guarantees students in the top 15 percent of their high school graduating class free tuition and covers fees at local community colleges. They are also eligible for additional scholarships under the NJ STARS II program if, after getting an associate degree, they transfer to a four-year college to complete their bachelor’s degree.

Now, county college officials are worried they may lose the program permanently. Atlantic Cape Community College has already posted a note on its Web site that the funding is under review.

“We had a big turnout at our first meeting in February,” said Lucy Acevedo, senior admissions counselor at Cumberland County College. “We had another planned for April 6. Now we’re just telling parents to write letters supporting the program.”

Eliminating a new freshman class from the scholarship program will save about $1.7 million, according to the proposed state budget. The budget increases funding about $1.5 million, to just more than $20 million, for students already in the NJ STARS I and II programs.

Peter Mora, president of ACCC, said colleges hope to find ways to continue the program even if it means reducing the scholarships or the number of eligible students.

“It is important enough to maintain it however we can,” Mora said, adding that he would be willing to consider having the college provide some of the funding.

Farbman said middle-class families would be hurt the most by the cut, since low-income students would still be eligible for other federal and state grants.

Donald Doran, vice president of student affairs at Ocean County College, said it is very hard to recruit for the program without a clear message to give to parents. The program has been very popular in Ocean County, and the college has 760 NJ STARS students.

“The scholarship was an incentive to keep students in state,” Doran said. He suggested going back to the original design, which funded just the first two years at the community college.

“The evidence so far is that students in the program have done extremely well,” he said.

The New Jersey Student Tuition Assistance Reward Scholarship, or NJ STARS, program has thrived despite a rocky political history. The law that created it in 2004 provided free community college tuition to the top 20 percent of high school graduates. The first group of 933 students enrolled in the fall of 2004.

The program grew rapidly, and the state Legislature followed with the NJ STARS II program.

But the program also quickly became more costly than anticipated as more middle-class families, ineligible for other financial aid, took advantage of the scholarships, worth about $3,700 per year at community colleges and an average $11,000 per year at four-year schools.

In December 2008, with almost 5,300 NJ STARS students attending community colleges, the Legislature reduced eligibility to the top 15 percent of high school graduates, and also cut the NJ STARS II scholarships to a maximum $7,000 per year based on grade point average.

The future of NJ STARS may not be decided until a state budget is approved, usually in late June. High school counselors said some students had already made plans to attend community colleges because of NJ STARS and it seems unfair to cut them off.

“We have a lot of students who go to ACCC for financial reasons,” said Anne Cancelmo, a counselor at Mainland Regional High School. “We weren’t expecting this. They may still go to ACCC, but it will be more of a hardship.”

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