In the past month, policymakers in both New Jersey and Connecticut released proposals to launch Promise programs—which, as I discussed at length in an earlier report, have grown in popularity but vary significantly—for a subset of their states’ higher education students. They join a number of states that have had or are having active debates around new free or debt-free college proposals—or expansions of existing programs—during this spring’s legislative sessions, including California, West Virginia, Indiana, and Mississippi. Several more states are likely to take up the conversation this session, and still others can expect a debate around the merits of such a program during their state’s gubernatorial elections.
Here’s what policymakers in New Jersey and Connecticut are proposing.
Recently-elected Governor Phil Murphy included free community college as part of his campaign’s policy platform. He quickly followed up with an initial $50-million proposal in his first budget, billing the program as a first step in a broader plan.
The proposal would reach both recent high school graduates and adult students, providing free tuition for students for families earning below $45,000. The governor’s proposal would nearly double the state’s investment in grant aid for low- and moderate-income community college students, and the governor’s office reports that they expect the new grants would reach an additional 15,000 students. The proposal smartly sends the resources to students who need the most help. Moreover, the details that have been released so far do not seem to include narrow eligibility requirements such as a minimum GPA or full-time enrollment, welcome design decisions that set it apart from several of the more restrictive Promise programs in other states.
The New Jersey proposal is a good reminder that each state’s baseline appropriations, tuition levels, and existing state aid will influence the role of Promise programs. New Jersey’s tuition at county colleges (community colleges) is the thirteenth-highest in the nation; the state charges an average of $4,870 in tuition and fees, an increase of 25 percent since the Great Recession. As a result, even with a relatively strong existing state aid program, a significant number of low- and moderate-income students would still receive support from the tuition-only, last-dollar program.
Like in New Jersey, it is expensive to pay full freight at a community college in Connecticut. The state has increased their tuition and fees at community colleges by approximately 30 percent since the Great Recession to about $4,300 per year, and the average total aid award (including state and federal aid) covers about half that cost. Connecticut’s “Free to Start, Free to Finish” proposal, backed by Senator Beth Bye (D) and Representative Greg Haddad (D), provides recent high school graduates with free tuition if they enroll full-time and have incomes below 300 percent of the federal poverty level (about $73,000 for a family of four). It also provides students who meet that same income requirement and have completed the first half of their degree with free tuition to finish their degrees at two- or four-year institutions—financial support that may come too late for many students, given that about 20 percent of first-time, first-year students at public four-year colleges do not return in their second year. The proposal does not appear to have a GPA requirement, and it is unclear whether the program would be limited to recent high school graduates. Finally, like the Oregon Promise, the proposal is structured as a last-dollar program but includes a “middle-dollar” provision: even if a student has their tuition costs covered by Pell or other aid, they still receive $1,000 to help cover other costs of attendance like books or rent.
The Connecticut proposal is a positive first step, and seems to avoid many of the unnecessary or counterproductive restrictions in other states. However, by limiting eligibility to full-time students, the program would not reach most community college students and would miss many of the students who most need the help: Connecticut community colleges serve twice as many part-time students as they do full-time students.
It is unclear whether either of these proposals, Connecticut’s or New Jersey’s, will move forward any time soon. Connecticut is in the middle of filling a hole in their biennial budget and state policymakers have shown little appetite for serious new investments this year. The New Jersey program may be more likely to gain steam, although the governor’s budget package does face hurdles. Regardless, as these debates get off the ground, policymakers should center these proposals as first steps toward a broader higher education affordability plan in the state—one that ultimately reaches all students with financial need and incorporates the Promise program as a building block toward systemwide debt-free pathways for students.