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Riley, Wisniewski, Benson & Lampitt Bill Creating Commission to Study, Recommend Ways to Make College more Affordable in NJ Gets Final Legislative Ok

Legislation sponsored by Assembly Higher Education Committee Chair Celeste Riley and Assembly Democrats John Wisniewski, Dan Benson and Pamela Lampitt to create a task force charged with studying different ways to help make college more affordable for New Jersey students received final legislative approval 77-1 by the full Assembly on Thursday.

“Too many students are being forced to choose between taking on overwhelming amounts of debt to pay for a degree and not going to college,” said Riley (D-Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem). “A college education should not be a luxury. Providing students with options that could help lessen the financial hardship could mean the difference between putting off college and getting that degree. This new law will allow us to study new ways of making college more affordable for every student.”

Riley has introduced a 20-bill package to control higher education costs and improve services. She has scheduled three on-campus hearings for that package – May 14 at The College of New Jersey, May 28 at Rowan University and June 11 at Hudson County Community College.

“Rising tuition costs are placing unbearable financial burdens on New Jersey college students and families,” said Wisniewski (D-Middlesex). “The findings of the commission have the potential to open doors for students who otherwise could not afford a college education. Making higher education more affordable not only helps these students, but the state which would benefit from a well-educated workforce.”

“It is a terrible tragedy when our best and brightest cannot further their education due to the rising cost of college tuition,” said Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex). “The commission will examine all avenues to make higher education in New Jersey more affordable and accessible to our students.”

“We lose many of our high school graduates to colleges and universities in other states. This migration hurts our schools and it hurts us as a state since many of these students will take jobs and settle in these states,” said Lampitt (D-Camden/Burlington). “Making our schools more affordable can help us better compete, and keep students who after graduation will help contribute to our economy. This new law will help us accomplish this goal.”

The bill (A-2236) would establish a College Affordability Study Commission for the purpose of examining issues and developing recommendations to increase the affordability of higher education in New Jersey. The commission would consist of 12 members, including the Secretary of Higher Education.

The commission will be charged with studying issues related to increasing the affordability of higher education in the state, including:

· the creation of an Accelerated Degree Pilot Program which would offer high performing high school students interested in pursuing a medical degree or graduate-level science or engineering degree the opportunity of receiving that degree earlier than would be possible under a traditional program;

· the creation of an Affordable Degree Pilot Program which would allow students to earn a baccalaureate degree at a discounted tuition rate through a degree program partnership between a county college and a four-year public institution of higher education, with the student completing the first two years of the program at the participating county college;

· the creation of a Pay It Forward Pilot Program to replace the current system of charging students tuition and fees for enrollment at public institutions of higher education and allow students to instead pay back a percentage of their income for a certain number of years;

· methods to increase the performance of the New Jersey Better Educational Savings Trust (NJBEST), N.J.S.18A:71B-35 et seq., including, but not limited to: setting specific high standards for the selection of the investment manager to ensure that the program is ranked nationally as one of the best based on rate of return, expense ratios, and other relevant criteria; improving investment options available to the investor, such as options that permit customers more flexibility to customize their portfolios; determining possible alternatives to the NJBEST Scholarship, such as an annual state matching amount per beneficiary without the requirement of the beneficiary attending a state institution of higher education; and allowing a gross income tax deduction for amounts contributed to NJBEST accounts;

· changes to the New Jersey College Loans to Assist State Students (NJCLASS) Loan Program, N.J.S.18A:71C-21 et seq., that will increase disclosure and make the program more consumer-friendly for student and parent borrowers including, but not limited to: advertisement of the Annual Percentage Rate for NJCLASS loans in addition to the interest rate; options for a borrower to choose either a co-signer or guarantor on a loan; an option for deferred loan payment of principal and interest while in school with a 10-15 year repayment period; and NJCLASS loan consolidation interest rates that more closely reflect market conditions; and

· any other proposals that the commission believes would increase the affordability of higher education in the state.

The bill directs the commission’s report to be submitted to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the General Assembly, no later than 12 months after the commission organizes. The bill would take effect immediately, and the commission would expire 30 days after the submission of its report.

The bill now heads to the Governor’s desk.