July 14, 2008
Good but Improvable Program
By JAMES AHEARN
MANY MORE high school graduates leave New Jersey to attend college than come here from other states. In fact, New Jersey ranks first nationally in this imbalance.
This has been true for decades. Politicians and educators regularly decry the situation, saying that it is embarrassing, that a state as affluent as ours should provide better for its young people.
It might be argued in response that New Jersey saves big money by getting other states to assume a disproportionate share of our higher-education burden. But that would be Machiavellian. Perish the thought.
Four years ago, the state finally did something. A program called NJ Stars was launched. It provided free tuition at public two-year community colleges for students graduating from high school in the top 20 percent of their class.
The program was welcomed by eligible students, their families and the community colleges, which stood to attract some bright kids who might otherwise have gone elsewhere.
Two years later, the first NJ Stars students were graduating from the community colleges with associate degrees and asking, "Now what?" The state had an answer: NJ Stars II. Students who had maintained a 3.0 grade average at the community college level would be eligible for admission and free tuition at a four-year state college or university.
The state pays $4,100 a year to the senior colleges for each NJ Stars II student. That is less than half the cost of senior colleges. They have been grumbling about that, calling it an unfunded state mandate. They have a legitimate beef, since the state is simultaneously cutting aid to higher education across the board.
There is no dispute, however, about the popularity of the program. It is a smash hit. In its first year, 930 students benefited. Four years later, NJ Stars is assisting 4,000 community college students. Another 800, now enrolled in the senior colleges, are getting help from NJ Stars II. The two programs are especially valued by working- and middle-class families with several kids to send through college
However, three problems have become apparent two educational, the other financial in the New Jersey Students Tuition Assistance Reward Scholarship Programs.
Even though high school students must graduate in the top fifth of their class to qualify, community colleges report that 30 percent of NJ Stars freshmen must take at least one remedial course, often in math. That compares favorably with non-Stars students, of whom no fewer than 70 percent need remedial help. Still, Stars students are supposed to be smart, and a substantial number are not ready for college-level work.
Also, an unintended consequence of the top-20-percent rule is that some students avoid challenging high school courses, lest they get a grade that would lower their average and thus their NJ Stars eligibility.
There is no family income limit on participation. Governor Corzine, trying to save money to balance his budget, proposed limiting NJ Stars eligibility to families with incomes no higher than $100,000 a year. At first impression, that did not seem unreasonable, even in a state where the cost of living is as high as it is in New Jersey.
However, the governor wanted to put the cutoff into effect immediately, and thousands of families with incomes above the limit had already made plans for college based on the assumption that Johnny or Susie would be eligible for NJ Stars come September. It was estimated that as many as 40 percent of the new class of NJ Stars scholars would be disqualified.
The governor was persuaded to delay action for a year. In the interim, however, another of his signature task forces will be mustered. This one will evaluate the program, including costs, income eligibility and academic qualifications. Some sort of income limit is likely, perhaps one that would offer progressively less assistance as family income rises.
So, too, with academic preparation. Corzine has endorsed a national high school reform plan that would require all students to take and pass rigorous college-prep courses to graduate. That is clearly unrealistic. Some kids can do it. Others just can't, and it would be cruel and counterproductive to label them failures. However, such a standard would work fine as a requisite for NJ Stars assistance.
Then New Jersey could congratulate itself not just because more of its young people were attending college within the state, but also because the additional students were academically qualified and deserved assistance. They would be New Jersey Stars.
James Ahearn is a contributing editor and former managing editor of The Record.
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