Sweeney-Cunningham Plan To Make Higher Education More Affordable and Accessible for New Jersey Students
TRENTON – A wide-ranging plan to make college more affordable and to reduce student debt was approved by the Senate today. The 10 bills, sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senator Sandra Cunningham, the chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, Senator M. Teresa Ruiz, Senator Shirley K. Turner, Senator Nia H. Gill, Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez and Senator Linda Greenstein are based on the recommendations of a blue ribbon College Affordability Study Commission on higher education.
“A college degree has always been a means of professional and economic opportunity in America, especially for students from middle class and low-income families,” said Senator Sweeney. “A higher education has become even more important in the rapidly-evolving marketplace. These bills will take meaningful steps in New Jersey to make college more affordable and to minimize student debt. Every student should have the opportunity for a college degree if they have the ability and the desire.”
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 a reality for current and future generations of students.”
Today’s students are taking on heavy 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 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 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 for 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.
The 3-Plus-1 bill will require courses offered in the 3rd year be equivalent and transferable at four-year institutions, and that 300-level courses be taught by advanced degree faculty members in collaboration with or by faculty of the four-year institutions.
The plan includes income tax deductions for interest on student loans.
“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 through a study commission, measures to facilitate the transfer of credits between schools, caps on credit requirements, expansion of current financial aid opportunities, strategies to encourage students to keep pace with credit requirements and ways to encourage “open resource textbooks,” to make digital textbooks available.
The dual enrollment bill was amended to create a study commission to develop an implementation plan that is not a state mandate.
“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.”
“Making a higher education more accessible to students must be a priority,” said Senator Ruiz (D-Essex). “Research shows that students who participate in dual enrollment make a better transition to college and stay in college once they’re there. It also reduces the overall cost of a higher education, which is so important to increasing opportunities for students in the state to attend college and get a degree.”
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.
“It is important to provide the necessary tools for New Jersey’s students to help put a higher education within their reach,” said Senator Greenstein (D-Middlesex, Mercer). “By changing certain provisions of our award program and expanding eligibility to increase the number of students who quality for it, we can give more high-performing high school students a chance to go to college and pursue their goals.”
The Bills Approved By The Senate
1) 3-Plus-1 Degree Programs (S-869) 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 student follows the curriculum of the senior institution and completes 300-level classes which would be taught by tenured faculty before taking the fourth year at the senior institution. The bill was revised to require courses offered in the 3rd year be equivalent to four-year institutions, and that 300-level courses be taught by advanced degree faculty members in collaboration with or by faculty of the four-year institutions.
2) Accelerated 3-Year Degree Programs (S-769) 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. There would be an exemption process for schools that offer three or fewer undergraduate degree programs.
3) Dual Enrollment Commission (S-870) Sweeney/ Cunningham/Ruiz
The bill would create a study commission to develop a dual enrollment plan by January of 2018. The plan would recommend policies and an implementation strategy. The cost estimates and guidelines would ensure that it is not a state mandate.
4) Tax Deduction for Student Loans (S-1136) Gill
The bill would allow 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-770) 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-1265) 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) 30 Credit Strategies (S-767) 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 30 credits per semester.
8) Open Text Books (S-768) 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. It would not be mandated as a free service.
9) Financial Literacy Instruction Requirement (S-762) Cunningham/Sweeney
The bill ensures that a student enrolled in high school meet with a guidance counselor during either the second or third year of high school to discuss State and federal tuition assistance programs that could be available to the student to finance postsecondary educational opportunities and the realities of student loan debt. Guidance counselors would also discuss options available to the student for dual enrollment in high school and an institution of higher education that would enable the student to earn college credit while still in high school and reduce the overall cost of a higher education.
10) Renames and Expands NJSTARS (S-763) Cunningham/Sweeney/Greenstein
The bill would create the New Jersey HonorScholars Program, replacing the New Jersey Student Tuition Assistance Reward Scholarship (NJSTARS) and NJSTARS II Programs. The bill would permit students to be eligible for the scholarship if their class rank at the completion of the 11th or 12th grade is in the top 20 percent of their high school class. Current eligibility is limited to the top 15 percent, under NJSTARS. Furthermore, a scholarship under the New Jersey HonorScholars Program would be applied toward the cost of tuition. The amount of the scholarship a county college student would be eligible to receive would remain the same as under NJSTARS. The bill would create a new category of students who would qualify for a HonorScholars scholarship. These students would be required to be in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class to be eligible to receive a $2,000 scholarship per semester to be used toward tuition costs for a total of four years or eight semesters excluding summer sessions in State college and universities.
The bills all cleared the full Senate and will now head to the Assembly for further consideration.