More than 5,700 students were awarded NJ STARS scholarships for the 2008-09 school year — awards that provided students free college tuition and fees at a cost of $18 million to the state.

But six years and $43.5 million into the popular program, there is no statewide documentation that shows how many recipients have actually earned college degrees from the state’s two-year community colleges and gone on to a four-year college, which is the goal of the program.

A 2006 state report on NJ STARS recommended that a study be done during the 2009-10 academic year to identify trends in the program’s enrollment, student performance, and graduation and retention rates. But because the program was modified in 2009, no such study is being done.

The Press of Atlantic City contacted several state agencies and county colleges for graduation data. Some information was obtained, but because there is no standardized reporting method, the results cannot be conclusive. Officials cited lack of research staff and funding.

“It’s one of those things we said we should try to keep better track of,” said Elaine Schardien, NJ STARS coordinator at Ocean County College, which has had the largest enrollment of NJ STARS students, 586, this year.

The New Jersey Student Tuition Assistance Rewards Scholarship law began in 2004 and guaranteed free tuition and fees at community colleges to all high school students who graduate in the top 20 percent of their classes. In 2006, the program expanded to add STARSII scholarships to the community college graduates who continued on to a four-year state college.

The Press asked Atlantic Cape Community College, Cumberland County College and Ocean County College for graduation data on NJSTARS students. Data provided by Ocean County College compared total NJSTARS enrollment with the number of graduates, which made it difficult to determine how many students had graduated compared with how many new NJSTARS students had entered. The information from the three county colleges shows that between 35 and 60 percent of NJSTARS students graduated within the allowable three years, and others continued to attend even after their STARS eligibility ran out.

Researchers say it’s impossible to draw any conclusions about whether the program is a success.

“The graduation rate (for NJSTARS students) is higher than the average for community colleges,” said Tom Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University in New York. “But these are the better students.”

The program has been so popular that the state Legislature, in an effort to control costs, reduced eligibility starting in 2009 to the top 15 percent of high school graduates and limited the scholarship at the four-year colleges to $7,000 a year, split between the state and the colleges.

“(NJSTARS) has had a positive effect in providing a way for many students to go to college despite these dire times,” said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-Camden, a sponsor of the 2008 bill and chairwoman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee. “It is creating oppportunity.”

Gov. Chris Christie has proposed eliminating a new freshman class of STARS in September, althought community college presidents are trying to save the program.

“If you can see something is working, it provides a reason to keep funding going,” said Alisa Cunningham, vice president of research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

The New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, or HESAA, which coordinates the funding, tracks only the number of awards given each year and not the graduation rates. It was HESAA that recommended in 2006 that another study be done this year. New Jersey Commission on Higher Education executive director Marguerite Beardsley said any research would have to be done as a specially funded project.

Maud Fried-Goodnight, executive director of enrollment, academic and student support services at Cumberland County College, said in an e-mail that the school has tracked students. She said their three-year graduation rate has averaged 60 percent since the program began in 2004. Lucy Acevedo, a counselor at Cumberland County College, said she understands why some students don’t graduate on time, but she would like to see the three-year graduation rate even higher — reaching 80 percent — since NJSTARS students are the top students from their high schools and they do get a free education.

The most detailed information was provided by Atlantic Cape Community College, which showed three-year graduation rates of 54 percent, 52 percent and 35 percent for the NJSTARS students who started in the fall of 2004, 2005 and 2006. Students can receive STARS awards for as many as five semesters, or 2.5 years, and would then graduate with the May class in their third year.

ACCC’s data also showed that over the three years, 37 percent of students continued to attend even after they lost their STARS eligibility. Nineteen percent of the students left the college without graduating. Some of those may have transferred to other colleges or may have dropped out.

Why some don’t make it

Carmen Royal, dean of students at ACCC, said students can lose their eligibility for several reasons. STARS students must attend full-time and maintain a 3.0 grade-point average. Many students also work, and some fall behind on their credits or grades.

“They do have to work harder than regular students to maintain their eligibility,” Royal said.

Graduating on time is especially challenging for those who require remedial courses. Changes in the law last year require students to take and pay for their own remedial courses before they use the STARS scholarship. Data from both ACCC and Cumberland indicate on average about 25 percent of STARS eligible students need at least one remedial course, usually in math.

ACCC’s Royal said students who are also eligible for other financial aid can more easily drop to part-time or below the STARS GPA because it won’t affect their funding. But for middle-class students ineligible for other aid, there is a lot more pressure to meet the STARS criteria.

HESAA data show that this year, 2,780 of the 4,320 STARS students at community colleges got all of their funding through the STARS program. Another 524 students got partial funding through STARS, and 1,106 were totally funded by other financial aid such as Pell or state Tuition Aid grants.

Three NJSTARS students who will graduate in May after just two years at ACCC said it was a major challenge. All plan to transfer to four-year colleges to complete their bachelor’s degrees and did not want to spend three years at the community college. They all worked part-time to cover other costs such as books and gas, but said STARS was a huge factor in their ability to go to college.

“I took five courses each semester, and took some over the summer, too,” said Nicole Giapoutzis of Hammonton, a 2008 graduate of St. Joseph High School who will transfer to Rowan University as an education and English major. She also worked to maintain  the 3.5 grade-point average required to earn the maximum $7,000 annual STARS II scholarship at Rowan.

“It was a real incentive to maintain the GPA because I get no other financial aid,” she said. “All I get is STARS, and it was up to me to keep it.”

Kathryn Ciaramella, 19, of Egg Harbor Township, paid to take extra courses at ACCC so she could get done in two years and earn some extra credits toward her four-year degree at Rowan University, where she plans to major in education with specialties in math, English and special education.

“Economically, it just made sense to go to ACCC,” she said.

About 70 percent of the STARS students who graduated from ACCC have transfered to a four-year college, some with more ease than others.

Cortney Ziegler, of Galloway Township, a 2008 graduate of Absegami High School, said she decided to accept the NJSTARS scholarship because it would allow her to get out of college almost debt-free.

She said students have to carefully track what they are taking and whether it will affect their STARS status and transfer credits at the four-year college.

“I know a student who lost their STARS eligibility because of just one credit,” she said.

Transferring not always easy

Ziegler was accepted at both Rowan and The College of New Jersey for next year, but she said it is proving more difficult than she thought to transfer all her credits, especially at TCNJ. She said at TCNJ she may have to retake so many courses that she will have to spend a third year at the college, a year she will have to pay for. The STARS II scholarship is good for only two years.

Amanda Bilgeshouse, 22, of Barnegat Township, will pay for two courses at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey this summer because of transfer issues. The 2005 Southern Regional High School graduated graduated as a STARS student from Ocean County College in 2008, then transferred to Stockton as a criminal justice major. She said she had to take a special criminal justice statistics course at Stockton, even though she took statistics at OCC.

“I had two courses that did not transfer, and I am two credits short in one area because the OCCC courses were three credits, and at Stockton courses are four credits,” she said. She had thought she could graduate from Stockton in May, but will now graduate in December.

A state law established the NJTransfer program, and was designed to assure students could apply their community college credits to an equivalent four-year degree. Lampitt, a sponsor of the law, said that if students are having problems, they and their community colleges should contact her office or their own state legislators.

“They have to speak up to tell us where the problems are,” Lampitt said.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241