Gov. Phil Murphy made a big show last month of announcing what headlines typically called his “free-college plan” or “tuition-free college plan.” The stories made clear, though, that it was only community college where tuition for students would be covered under the three-year plan.
Murphy asserted that “education out to be a right, not a privilege.” To do that for community college students, he’ll have to get the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment tacking on two more years to its requirement that the state provide free public education from age 5 through 18 — and then get voters to approve it.
The governor might have trouble even getting his fellow Democrats who control the Legislature to agree with his $50 million down payment in next year’s budget, which must be thrashed out and passed by the end of June.
The plan would commit the state to spending $200 million a year, which still isn’t much, but every little bit matters when New Jersey is facing an estimated $8.7 billion gap between revenue and spending for that fiscal year that starts July 1.
And it’s not as if community college students aren’t getting their share of public support.
The state’s most recent tuition and aid figures (from 2013) show the average community college tuition in New Jersey was $3,200, while the average aid a student received was $2,700.
Under Murphy’s plan, taxpayers would cover the tuition-bill balance next year for 15,000 students with family incomes of less than $45,000.
That might lure some more people to college, but having none of their own money at stake in their tuition might also persuade some that school is a giveaway they can use or neglect as they wish. Community colleges don’t have stellar graduation rates as it is.
Meanwhile, Murphy’s plan would do next to nothing for four-year colleges, in a state with the fourth-costliest public university system.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney said the community colleges could simply be given increased funding rather than create a new program.
But you can’t campaign on a slight increase in funding to two-year schools or claim you made free college a reality.
Murphy’s program seems designed to be part of a progressive checklist for a future campaign — perhaps for national office — along with a $15 minimum wage, new and higher taxes, mandatory paid employee leave, legalized marijuana, Planned Parenthood funding and throwing money at mass transit.
Adding to the massive tuition aid for community college students would be OK — it wouldn’t cost much and it wouldn’t do much either.
But if it and other policies are the beginning of the familiar pattern of governors focusing on their national ambitions instead of New Jersey’s desperate financial needs, the result could be very costly indeed for state residents.