NJSTARS - the state program that provides college scholarships for students who begin their higher education at community colleges - continues to evolve. Participation is now about half of what it was five years ago. What hasn't changed is the program's obvious value to recipients.

The New Jersey Student Tuition Assistance Reward Scholarship is an ongoing experiment. It began in the 2004-05 school year as a way to encourage top high school graduates to attend in-state schools and to give low-income students access to college.

In that first incarnation, high school students in the top 20 percent of their graduating classes were offered scholarships that paid tuitions and fees at the state's community colleges. There were early signs that the criteria for the scholarships were too loose. Because one in five students were eligible, not all of the 789 students who received a scholarship that year were especially scholarly. Some NJSTARS recipients required remedial courses before they were ready for college-level work.

But the program was successful enough that the state Legislature expanded it, adding the NJSTARS II scholarship, which continued the free ride for students who went on to four-year public colleges. By the 2008-2009 school year, more than 5,700 students were participating in the program, and it was becoming much too expensive to maintain.

Lawmakers took several steps to tighten requirements, including lowering the dollar value of scholarships and limiting them to the top 15 percent of graduating seniors.

It shouldn't be surprising that these less-generous but more-realistic scholarships aren't providing the same incentive the program once did. The Higher Education Student Assistance Authority projects that participation next year will be down to about 3,000 students. At the same time, the cost of the program will drop from a high of $18 million in 2008-09 to a more-manageable $8.5 million.

The recent drop-off in participation is primarily among students who had used the scholarships to go on to four-year state schools. The level of NJSTARS scholars at community colleges has held fairly steady. That may mean that the program is working best for the students who need it most - those who might not be attending college at all without it.

Lawmakers may have succeeded in finding the right balance for NJSTARS, creating a sustainable program that offers real opportunity to students in need.