The need to help New Jersey middle-class families pay for college is well known.
Tuition and fees at the state’s public colleges last year were an average $13,303, fourth highest in the nation (average $9,142), says the State Higher Education Officers Association. That’s a factor in more than a third of state students attending college out of state. When many don’t return, New Jersey’s vitality is diminished.
The state has a very strong college aid program for low-income students that provided $410 million in grants this year. For about the past decade, the state has made an effort to provide a little merit-based aid through its N.J. Student Tuition Assistance Reward Scholarship program, or NJSTARS, reaching $18 million in aid in 2008-09.
But even that small amount was unsustainable, given the state’s excessive spending and debt load. Aid dropped to $7 million in 2015.
Now state legislators want to remake NJSTARS to better target and increase the assistance. This looks like another case of politicians making a show of providing a significant benefit, even as they know they lack the fiscal responsibility to make it last.
The state has done this repeatedly. A brownfields program to clean up about 20,000 polluted sites was announced with great fanfare, but suspended when it ran out of money in 2011. Another state program offered aid to homeowners to remove underground oil tanks, but didn’t have the funding needed. The state showered the Urban Enterprise Zone program on 32 localities, but couldn’t afford to provide its redevelopment funding or do without the revenue of its reduced sales tax.
NJSTARS originally offered aid to the top 20 percent of high school graduates. When the money ran out, the state cut that to the top 15 percent.
Since higher-performing students are more likely to go to colleges other than New Jersey state schools, the change reduced participation from 5,750 students to 2,679.
The proposed remake, now called NJ HonorScholars Program, would again cover tuition at community colleges for the top 20 percent of graduates. If they finish community college with a 3.25 grade point average, they would be eligible for $2,000 per semester if they continue at a four-year college in the state.
Those in the top 10 percent of their high school classes could opt for an annual $4,000 scholarship to a public or private college in New Jersey. A similar NJSTARSII scholarship previously was cut to $2,500 per year.
These incentives for students to perform well, attend college in New Jersey and make their lives here are modest and good.
But so far, legislators haven’t made a convincing case that the funding for them will still be there when November’s state election is a fading memory.
Even the gratuitous change in the program’s name — the bill simply amends the NJSTARS law and so isn’t really a new program — suggests legislators are well aware of their history of overpromising on merit aid, and want voters to forget.