Gov. Phil Murphy, left, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney are sparring over the 2020 state budget. Both attended the ribbon cutting ceremony for the National Aviation Research and Technology Park in Egg Harbor Township last week.

Gov. Phil Murphy is gearing up for a fight to increase the funding he made available last year for the state’s free community college program.

“I urge the Legislature to stand with the students here,” Murphy said during a news conference this week. “I am not going to let this go.”

The state Legislature last week halved Murphy’s proposed investment in free community college for the upcoming 2020 budget. On Wednesday, the governor gathered state and county education officials at Passaic County Community College to push for the $58.5 million he proposed to fund the Community College Opportunity Grant program.

CCOG, which began as a pilot program in spring 2019, provides what is called “last-dollar” funding for students enrolled in any of the state’s 19 two-year colleges, who are taking at least six credits and whose families earn less than $45,000 a year. The funding covers any gap remaining between their tuition and fees and all other financial aid grants they receive.

In its 2020 budget approved last week, the state Legislature reduced Murphy’s proposed CCOG funding to $25 million but increased the income eligibility limit from $45,000 to $65,000. Murphy has until June 30 to sign the budget and has the ability to make line-item vetoes.

The Senate Democratic Office said its budget gives county colleges top priority by expanding eligibility for the free college program.

“At the request of New Jersey’s county college presidents, the Legislature has proposed raising the income threshold from $45,000 to $65,000, which will help middle-class students and working adults attend or return to college. We also included career and technical education that will empower them with job skills,” a statement from the Democrats reads.

Mark Magyar, policy and communications director for the Senate Democratic Office, said they believe the money in the Legislature’s budget will be sufficient to fund the program going forward. He said that, as of this month, much of the $20 million in this year’s CCOG pilot for tuition reimbursement was still unspent, although the deadline for reimbursements is July.

The Higher Education Student Assistance Authority said it was still reconciling figures to determine how much aid will be disbursed.

Local community college presidents said they stand behind the effectiveness of the CCOG program. At Cumberland County College, 94 students received CCOG funding totaling $91,817 in the spring.

“It is sad that the students who are most at risk of not attaining their associate degree will be negatively impacted without appropriate finances and support,” Cumberland County College interim President Shelly O. Schneider said. “The proposed funding cuts will definitely have a negative impact on the economy of this region and prevent some of our worthy students of having an equal opportunity to a needed education. I hope the legislators are able to keep ‘opportunity’ in the Community College Opportunity Grant.”

Atlantic Cape Community College President Barbara Gaba said the CCOG pilot program has benefited 304 of Atlantic Cape’s students, providing a total of $408,929 in funding.

“In many cases this award meant the difference in attending college or not. We support the continuation of CCOG in the state’s 2020 budget plan. Any additional dollars that can help a student attend college with less debt truly speaks to our desire to be a college accessible to our Atlantic and Cape May communities,” Gaba said.

The Senate Democrats said Murphy could have further helped community colleges with funding by approving a switch in health benefits that would have saved $22 million. Murphy vetoed that legislation in December.

“This was supported by the county colleges. If the governor is serious about providing more resources to our county colleges, he would have accepted these savings,” the Senate Democrats said.

During his news conference Wednesday, Murphy called out the Legislature for slashing his proposed tax on millionaires in the state and bending to the will of corporations and gun lobbyists in its 2020 budget instead of adding funding to CCOG.

“You are way more deserving than the 19,000 millionaires who the Legislature continues to protect,” he told the community college students and officials. “CCOG speaks to a New Jersey where everyone who wants to work hard can get a degree, get a job and be part of our economic renewal.”

The Murphy administration expects CCOG to support about 18,000 students a semester next year after federal and state grants are applied, with the average award at $1,588 per semester.

The average in-district annual tuition at New Jersey community colleges is $5,018, based on 2018 rates. The maximum federal Pell Grant for next year is $6,195.

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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