New Jersey Lawmakers Question Plan to Reduce Community College Scholarship Awards

TRENTON, N.J. —

Vanessa Frost is thankful she’s not a year younger.

“I would completely be unable to go to college,” she said.

Frost attends Mercer County Community College under a state-funded scholarship program that gives free community college tuition for students who finish in the top 20 percent of their high school class.

But Gov. Jon S. Corzine has proposed making incoming freshmen from families earning more than $100,000 ineligible for the NJ STARS scholarship program.

Frost wouldn’t be affected if that happens because she’s already enrolled, but said she wouldn’t have been able to afford college even with her family earning more than $100,000. So the Ewing freshman worries about those like her who will follow and may not be eligible.

“Students that are planning to attend their community college under this program and are over the $100,000 mark will have to find another way to pay for school, if there’s even another way,” Frost said.

Amid such worry, New Jersey lawmakers on Monday questioned Corzine’s proposed income limit and the timing of it during a special hearing on the scholarship program.

Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, D-Middlesex, said any changes should be implemented in 2009 to give students and families time to prepare.

“I think to pull the plug or change this program now with parents needing to make this decision is just simply unfair and I would hope that the governor will announce that as soon as possible,” said Diegnan, the Assembly Higher Education Committee chairman.

He said a specific income limit “to me just doesn’t make sense” and argued it could be an incentive for parents to quit a job so their family income falls below $100,000.

“That just is nonsensical, so clearly we have issues,” Diegnan said.

Corzine hopes to save $2.5 million through the new income limit, which is part of $2.7 billion in proposed cuts he’s seeking in the state budget plan that must be approved by July 1.

“Hopefully in a state budget approaching $34 billion, we can find $2.5 million to keep this program going,” Diegnan said.

Corzine’s office said the governor has heard from many legislators and constituencies seeking to reverse proposed budget cuts.

“He is willing to entertain those proposals, with the understanding that it will require trading one cut for another,” Corzine spokesman Jim Gardner said. “This remains a lean budget, which means doing more with less and in some instances doing less.”

Jane Oates, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education, said the program has become a victim of its own success.

It started in 2005 with 789 students at a cost of $1.7 million, but was expanded to give full scholarships to state colleges and universities to NJ STARS students who graduate community college and has grown to 3,850 students costing $12.6 million.

“The growth is far outpacing the funding for this program,” said Michael Angulo, the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority executive director.

According to the commission, if the $100,000 limit was already imposed, 39 percent of students in the program, or 658 freshmen, would have been ineligible this school year, saving the state $2.18 million.

But John Neckonchuk, a freshman at Camden County College and a NJSTARS participant, said an income threshold wasn’t what the program intended.

“If you have three children, $100,000 isn’t going to get you very far,” he said.

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