Free College Realities

September 26, 2018
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New Jersey governor Phil Murphy ran for office last year on the promise of providing tuition-free community college in the state.

The decision was a no-brainer: tuition-free programs are popular with voters, and a growing number of state legislatures have either proposed or enacted initiatives to drive down the cost of college. Additionally, long-standing free-college programs have already shown success in increasing access to college and improving retention and completion rates.

Murphy assumed office last January, but a political roadblock has kept him from fully fulfilling his campaign promise. The state Legislature would not provide all the money he needed to completely fund the program. Instead, New Jersey's new tuition-free program will run as a pilot initiative next spring and start with just a few yet-to-be-announced colleges.

"We pretty much didn't have the money to do it everywhere," said Zakiya Smith-Ellis, New Jersey's secretary of higher education. "The governor wants free community college as a universal program across the state, but [the pilot] will allow us to learn how to best operate and help us to understand more precisely how to reach out to students and how they respond to our message."

Despite the appeal of model programs such as the widely praised tuition-free Tennessee Promise, politics and state finances play a role in shaping these programs.

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