MAYS LANDING — Matthew Williams decided to start his education at community college because it was affordable.

As the 21-year-old business major plans to transfer soon from Atlantic Cape Community College to Stockton University in Galloway Township to finish his bachelor’s degree, he said he is in favor of a recent proposal in New Jersey that would help students like him save money on their education.

“I feel like everyone should have the chance to go to community college for free,” said Williams, of Brigantine.

As student-loan debt remains a burden for millions of Americans, a campaign promise turned proposal from Gov. Phil Murphy to provide free community college has students and school leaders pleased, but critics remain skeptical of the tax burden.

Earlier this month, Murphy attended a round-table discussion at Mercer County Community College, where he laid out a first-year outline for his multiyear plan to provide tuition-free, two-year college to New Jersey students.

Atlantic Cape President Barbara Gaba said the proposed $50 million investment “is the first step toward ensuring that all New Jerseyans will have access to the post-secondary education they need to be successful in today’s rapidly changing economy.”

State Sen. Chris Brown, R-2nd, lamented the lack of details on implementing the plan and the financial impact on the already highly taxed residents of New Jersey. Brown said while he is sponsoring bills to make college more affordable, he is not in favor of Murphy’s plan.

“As we teach our children, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Free community college sounds good, but unless the professors teach for free, the publishers sell textbooks for free, the contractors build classrooms for free, and the utility companies sell electricity and gas for free, our middle-class families and retirees will be forced to pick up the tab,” said Brown.

In his March budget address, Murphy outlined plans to raise the state sales tax back to 7 percent, raise the tax rate for millionaires and close a corporate tax loophole to fund the budget.

Murphy said his plan would allow an additional 15,000 students statewide to attend college tuition-free starting in January 2019. The grants for students would cover additional costs not already covered by Pell and Tuition Aid grants. The first year of grant funds will have an income limit but be open to full- and part-time students graduating high school and adults with some college credit but no degree.

“This investment would allow us to increase our ability to serve the residents of both Atlantic and Cape May counties, but in what capacity is not known at this point,” Gaba said.

Already, 29,600 community college students in New Jersey receive enough in state and federal grants to cover the cost of fees and tuition. Last year, more than half of the approximately 6,000 students at Atlantic Cape received a total of $11.8 million in federal Pell grants.

In fall 2016, there were 150,468 community college students in New Jersey out of 421,338 total students. Declining enrollments nationwide have forced community colleges to raise tuition and lay off staff.

Jacob C. Farbman, communications director for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, said the planning grants available to all 19 community colleges will be enough to assist with increased enrollment.

“I can tell you right now that if you look at previous state budgets over the last 10 years, really the community colleges have not received any increase in operating aid whatsoever,” he said. “Just the message alone that the governor is earmarking $5 million to go to the community colleges. … It is a good sign, it’s a wonderful sign.”

Contact: 609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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