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 TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney that seeks to address college affordability by establishing a “College Affordability Study Commission” gained the approval of a key Senate committee on Thursday.

“Students are drowning in debt when they graduate, an unfair burden that impacts them for years,” said Senate President Sweeney.  “We cannot stand on the sidelines and allow this to continue. The governor should review the facts and data on this issue and conclude that there is no other option than to move forward with the commission.  Our current system is completely unfair to students and bad for the state.”

The measured was approved by the Legislature last session, only to be vetoed by the governor. Today, the bill, S-979, was voted out of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

The Senate President said that the college affordability crisis is reaching its high point, with higher education loan debt now the second-leading debt burden for Americans under age 35, trailing only home mortgages.

The commission would study the creation of a proposed “Pay It Forward” pilot program. If the commission determines that such a program is warranted, it would replace the system of charging students tuition and fees for enrollment at public institutions of higher education and instead allow students to pay back a percentage of their income upon graduation for a certain number of years.

The study group would include ten members and consist of the Secretary of Higher Education, the Executive Director of the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, representatives of higher education institutions, faculty members, a student representative and members of the public.

The commission would also look at the NJBEST 529 College Savings Program and the NJCLASS Loan Program and provide suggested changes to the programs that would incentivize investors to choose the NJBEST program and provide more attractive terms and transparency for student borrowers who qualify for NJCLASS loans.

“Any options that may help ease the burden of college expenses on New Jersey families and allow more students to pursue college aspirations are worth exploring,” said Sweeney.  “The recent partnership between GloucesterCountyCollege and RowanUniversity, which expands opportunities for students without requiring additional spending is exactly what this commission will be seeking to replicate and expand upon.  We must make college more affordable for our residents and every idea should be explored.”

The legislation also urges the creation of an Affordable Degree Pilot Program to provide a low-cost higher education to students through partnerships between county colleges and four-year public institutions that provide discounted tuition rates, as well as an Accelerated Degree Pilot Program that would graduate high-performing students who are interested in pursuing a medical degree, or graduate-level science or engineering degree, earlier than would be possible under a traditional program.

In 2011, 3.2 million more people enrolled in higher education programs than in 2006, an 18 percent increase that was the largest such jump since the end of the Vietnam War. As the financial crisis hit, many people who lost their jobs went back to school, as evidenced by the 1.2 million student-enrollment increase among those aged 25 and above from just 2007 to 2008.

Nationally, the average tuition costs for four-year public colleges has more than tripled over the last three decades. Student loan debt is currently more than $1 trillion, 37 million Americans are shouldering student loan debt, and approximately 7 million borrowers have defaulted on federal and private student loans. The average student loan borrower graduates with more than $26,000 in debt.

The bill now goes to the Senate.