By President Donald A. Borden
It’s been said that no institution can be all things for all people. Community colleges offer a stark contrast to that opinion. In addition to providing transfer options to four-year colleges and universities through Associate Degree programs, community colleges offer a myriad of work and occupational training options that lead to careers in almost any field one can imagine.
That is why the recognition by both Governor Phil Murphy and the State Legislature of the value of community colleges is so critically important to the most at-risk students in our state. The Community College Opportunity Grant pilot effort put in place this spring has opened the door for many students who otherwise would find a college education to be unaffordable.
There are many students at Camden County College who either remained or re-enrolled because they qualified for the Community College Opportunity Grant. If not for the funding provided through this program, many of these students would not be in a position to continue their educations. At Camden County College, 286 students took advantage of this program and attended tuition-free. With this support they remain on track to complete their academic programs and find gainful employment, which can only benefit New Jersey’s economy.
The Community College Opportunity Grant pilot effort is an important start. Governor Murphy’s current proposed budget includes resources to expand this program to all community colleges for the entire academic year.
New Jersey should build on this pilot effort and the Governor’s proposed budget to expand this opportunity to more students. Currently, the program is limited to students in households earning less than $45,000 per year. Many more students who have similar needs do not have access to this opportunity due to the fact that they do not fall below the $45,000 income threshold. In addition, six of the state’s 19 community colleges were not chosen to participate in the initial phase of this program. This resulted in many extremely needy students across the state being left out of the equation. As the Governor’s proposal is being presented for the upcoming year, dependent part-time students living in a home making $45,000 or less annually will no longer qualify for this program. These students are often in greater need than an independent student who qualifies under the same economic limit. The first round of this grant also provided $250,000 for all nineteen community colleges to conduct outreach, onboard students, counsel and provide support to those who are most at-risk. These dollars are not included in the current proposal and are critically important to providing the vital protections to help students stay on track for successful completion. They also allow each of the community colleges to expand this assistance to students who may not receive fiscal benefits from the grant, but still require support, advisement and mentoring. If completion is a primary concern, resources to help students along the way are critically important to this process.
New Jersey needs a highly skilled workforce. The Secretary of Higher Education has set a goal of 65 percent of residents holding a post-secondary credential by 2025. The expansion of the Community College Opportunity Grant to raise the limit of median household income levels, continue to support part-time students and maintain the funding to support these students is critically important to reaching this goal. The investment of these dollars will make the dream of achieving a post-high school credential, leading to a living-wage job, without being burdened by crushing student debt a reality for thousands of students from middle-class, working families.
To quote from a recent article in the New York Times, “It is astonishing that no rigorous research has established the minimum amount of money required to make community colleges successful, given their critical potential to increase social mobility for millions of students. Higher education, which is, after all, in the business of research, needs to figure out what it will take to support community college students, who have so much to contribute to our society, if only we would let them.”
It’s time for us to recognize the long-term benefits for all of the residents of the State of New Jersey by supporting the success of our most economically challenged students.