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It’s Time for Progressive States to Lead on Free College

Mark Huelsman

This week, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy signed into law a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants in the state to access state financial aid for college. With it, New Jersey now joins 9 other states with some guarantee that a student’s immigration status will not preclude them from receiving state grant and scholarship aid to pay for college.

Given the absence of congressional (or White House) leadership that would protect DREAMers or clear a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, this is a no-brainer for progressive lawmakers and governors. It’s good policy to boot; allowing all immigrants to study, work hard, and contribute to the economy would boost wages and tax revenue, ideally creating shared prosperity for states and localities.

At the same time, New Jersey has been the scene of some debate about how, and even whether, to guarantee affordable community college. 

In his first budget proposal, Gov. Murphy included $50 million to eliminate tuition for families making under $45,000 annually, with the intention of making community college tuition-free for all residents within 3 years.

This proposal has real value, given that it targets the initial investment at the working class, includes all students (not just recent high school graduates) and doesn’t include some of the silly and counterproductive bells and whistles that other states have included in their tuition-free college proposals.

But a few weeks ago, Politico and local outlets reported on some reticence by state Democratic lawmakers, some of whom proposed watering down the proposal with so-called “merit” requirements, while others questioned the need for free community college in the first place.

This is unfortunate. A down payment on tuition-free college is great first step in ensuring that a student’s educational opportunity is no longer connected with their family’s wealth and should be part of any serious policy agenda that attempts to reduce unmet financial need for working class students.

Tacking on requirements like GPA or test score minimums inevitably harms the very working-class students that community colleges were created to serve. It undermines the universal access mission of community college and creates confusing rules that invariably benefit higher-income families. Time and again, merit requirements have proven little more than a way to ration financial aid away from students of color and those with fewer financial resources, furthering an unhelpful narrative that splits students into 2 camps: “deserving and undeserving.”

Other lawmakers (including some Democrats) have reiterated tired, right-wing arguments about students needing to pay for college lest they take college for granted. This is belied by the fact that students are already working, on average, far more than the recommended amount while in college; in New Jersey, students have to work over 15 hours a week in addition to attending school full-time to meet the average net price of public 2-year schools. It ignores the fact that an overwhelming number of community college students struggle with food insecurity. Removing financial barriers to college makes it so students can pay more, not less, attention to their studies.

Other requirements, like those dictating that some students need to stay in state for years after graduating (or risk having “free college” turn into a loan), would create a logistical nightmare for the state with little additional benefit. By definition, the state would have to administer an entirely new financial product for people who no longer live in their state because of a job opportunity or family reason.

Rather than excluding students, progressive states like New Jersey have an opportunity to lead and expand the universe of the possible on issues like free college. Instead of debating how to ration a program with broad political support, New Jersey lawmakers (not to mention lawmakers in other states) should be focusing how to offer an affordability guarantee while putting even more resources into institutions that serve over half of the state’s students on a pathway to a degree.

Across the country, community colleges are doing the yeoman’s work of educating working-class students, and doing so at lower cost with far fewer state and federal resources at their disposal. It’s time for progressive lawmakers to offer a strong defense of these institutions, reinforcing their mission of universal access (regardless of family background, race, immigration status) and offering a model for our other laboratories of democracy.