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College Affordability Bills Advance

State Seal

TRENTON – A comprehensive plan to make college more affordable and to give more students the opportunity for a higher education without the burden of lasting debt was approved by a Senate committee today. The 10 bills voted out of the Senate Higher Education Committee, sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senator Sandra Cunningham, the committee chair, and by Senator Nellie Pou, Senator Shirley Turner, Senator Nia Gill and Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez, are based on the recommendations of a blue ribbon study commission on higher education.

“The costs of a higher education are threatening to put college out of reach for too many students or to leave graduates with the burden of lasting debts,” said Senator Sweeney. “College affordability can be a barrier for students from middle class or low-income families that can harm their ability to achieve the benefits of future employment opportunities and higher earnings.”

Over the past three decades, tuition at public four-year colleges has more than doubled, even after adjusting for inflation, according to the U.S. Department of Education. This is especially true in New Jersey, where tuition costs at the public four-year institutions of higher education are the fourth highest in the nation, the commission found.

Senator Cunningham said it was important to identify ways to make college more affordable without compromising educational quality and without making cutbacks to school operations.

“We worry that there are too many young people around this state who haven’t been given the opportunity to reach their full potential,” said Senator Cunningham. “To be competitive in the workforce it is critical that they be provided access to higher education and it shouldn’t be a luxury reserved for the wealthy. These bills will help make the vision of college opportunity a reality for current and future generations of students.”

Today’s students are taking on onerous levels of debt as the burden to finance college has shifted more decisively to students and their families, Senator Sweeney noted. In 2004, total student loan debt was $350 billion. It now stands at a startling $1.2 trillion. Between 1992 and 2012, the average amount owed by a typical student loan borrower who graduated with a bachelor’s degree more than doubled to a total of nearly $27,000.

The College Affordability Study Commission, the 10-member panel formed by legislation authored by senators Sweeney and Cunningham worked since April of 2015 to develop its report and recommendations that shaped the legislative plan.

The commission identified overarching solutions to achieve affordability, including reducing the time it takes to earn a degree, enhancing financial aid programs and helping students and their families understand college financing.

“These bills will give New Jersey’s students an enhanced ability to complete the work for a degree and to graduate with on a timely schedule,” said Senator Pou. “A higher education has always been a stepping stone for generations of Americans. We don’t want that to be lost or compromised.”

The increasing length of time students are taking to earn their degree is a key contributor to the college affordability problem. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, just 56 percent of students beginning at four-year colleges complete a bachelor’s degree within six years, while only 28 percent of associate degree-seeking students graduate within three years.

“The issue of college affordability is complex and includes multiple factors contributing to the problem,” said Senator Cruz-Perez. “This plan is multi-dimensional with a diverse number of solutions. It will help put higher education within reach of many more students.”

The “3-Plus-1” degree programs will allow students to complete three years at a county college and one year at a four-year college or university and earn a bachelor’s degree and the three year programs will allow all four-year institutions to adopt a three-year degree model as an option.

“Increasing the state tax deduction for student loans will help make higher education more affordable for students and their families,” said Senator Gill. “College debt has become a lasting burden that needs to be reduced.”

The affordability plan also includes measures to support dual enrollment, state income tax deductions for student loans and the extension of TAG grants to summer programs. And it includes measures to better facilitate the transfer of credits between schools, caps on credit requirements, strategies to encourage students to keep pace with credit requirements and ways to encourage “open resource textbooks,” to make digital textbooks available.

“Setting reasonable caps on college credits needed for degrees will help protect students from unfair requirements that can become too costly,” said Senator Turner. “Added credit requirements result in additional costs.”

According to a 2013 report of the College Board, college graduates average lifetime earnings that are 65 percent greater than high school graduates, those with advanced degrees earn two to three times as much as high school graduates and those with degrees benefit with more job security. From 1992 to 2012, the unemployment rate for individuals with at least a bachelor’s degree has consistently been about half the unemployment rate for high school graduates.

The Bills Approved By The Senate Higher Education Committee

1)       3-Plus-1 Degree Programs (S-2623) Sweeney/ Cunningham

The bill would allow the creation of 3-Plus-1 degree programs that allow students to complete three years at a county college and one year at a four-year college or university and earn a bachelor’s degree. In the third year the students follow the curriculum of the senior institution and complete 300-level classes and complete the fourth year at the senior institution. , and receives a bachelor’s degree from the senior institution at a significantly reduced cost. This program will provide cost savings.

2)      3-Year Degree Programs (S-2620) Cunningham/Sweeney

The bill would allow all four-year institutions to adopt a three-year degree model as an option, especially for students ready to commit to a major early on in their college career. The programs will address which majors, eligibility criteria, incentives, and student support services.

3)      Dual Enrollment (S-2624) Sweeney/ Cunningham

The bill would give college-ready high school seniors the opportunity to earn 15 college credits; with the costs split among the school district, the college, and the student. Students eligible for free or reduced price lunches would be exempt from paying.

4)      Tax Deduction for Student Loans (S-2484) Gill

State income tax deductions for interest on student loans for families with joint incomes up to $160,000 or single incomes to $80,000.

5)      TAG Expansion to Summer Semester (S-2621) Cunningham/Sweeney

The bill would allow eligible students to apply their TAG funding towards summer enrollment and offer an option for the three-year accelerated degree at four-year institutions.

6)      Degree Caps (S-1871) Turner

The bill would require colleges and universities to cap the credit requirements at 120 credits for bachelor degrees and 60 credits for associate degrees. The bill would allow for waivers for select programs.

7)      Reverse Transfer Policies (S-2618) Cunningham/Pou

Reverse transfer is the process of combining credits earned at a county college and a four-year institution for the purpose of awarding an associate degree from the county college. The bill would require all institutions of higher education to adopt uniform standards for transferring course credits and to communicate the transfer process as transcripts are exchanged and course equivalencies are discussed.

8)      15 Credit Strategies (S-2617) Cunningham/Sweeney

The bill would encourage students to take a full course load each semester, informing them of the costs and consequences of delayed course work. The effort could include media campaigns and financial incentives to carrying 15 credits per semester.

9)      Open Text Books (S-2619) Cunningham/Cruz-Perez

The bill would encourage open resource textbooks, making available digital textbooks as a means of affordable alternatives.  Additionally, the commission encourages institutions of higher education to evaluate possible ways to reduce other non-tuition costs, which may include offering more flexible options with respect to meal plans and housing.

10)   2 + 2 Resolution – SR84 Sweeney/ Cunningham

The bill would urge the establishment of additional bridge agreements between county colleges and four-year institutions of higher education.

Two additional bills to improve college financing literacy for high school students and their parents(S-990) and to expand scholarships for top students(S-991) have already been approved by the education committee.