Colleges: Who'll pay for N.J. Stars?

By DIANE D\'AMICO,

A state program that guarantees a free college education to top high school graduates has been so successful that it might soon be unaffordable.

The cost to the state colleges of the STARS II program is growing so rapidly that college officials warn changes must be made in how it is funded, or they may be forced to limit student participation to control their costs.

They say a program intended to expand access to high-achieving students who might not be able to afford college also has caught on with savvy middle- and upper-middle-class families more than happy to get a free degree at the colleges\' expense.

The collective cost to 10 state colleges this year is more than $2.5 million, and the program is only in its second year.

"That\'s a heck of a bill to be handed," Montclair State University president Susan Cole said. "It\'s unconscionable of the Legislature to not fund it."

State legislators said they will monitor the situation and are open to suggestions such as a funding cap or family income limit.

"(The colleges) have a legitimate complaint," said state Senate President Richard J. Codey, who sponsored the bill that established STARS II.

Harvey Kesselman, interim vice president for finance at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, said the average income of his STARS II scholar families is $96,000.

"I\'m just not sure that was the target population, and it places a hardship on the college to fund the scholarships," he said. Stockton is spending more than $400,000 to fund 85 STARS II scholars this year, up from $100,000 last year.

When the Student Tuition Assistance Reward Scholarship, or STARS program began in 2004, it guaranteed free community college tuition and fees to all students who graduated in the top 20 percent of their high school class. Students would apply for any other federal and state financial aid, and the state program would fund the difference. There was no cost to the county colleges.

But in 2006, the law was expanded so that STARS I community college graduates who maintained a 3.0 grade point average could continue to get free tuition and fees at any state four-year public college. But the state funds only about $2,000 per semester of STARS II, passing the rest of the cost on to the colleges in what Cole called an unfunded state mandate. The average state college cost for tuition and fees this year is $9,800, triple the average county college cost of $3,275.

Middle-class families ineligible for need-based grants are understandably gravitating to the program. Egg Harbor Township High School guidance director Terry Charlton said there is a lot more interest from students who in the past would not have considered starting at a two-year community college.

"Students are more aware of the program and are more willing to consider it because it is an excellent program," he said.

Rowan University president Donald Farish and Cole said STARS is almost forcing top students to start at a community college in order to get state aid, rather than giving them options. The state had a merit scholarship program for four-year colleges, the Outstanding Student Recruitment Program, but that has been phased out.

"The state will never be able to afford a program that might have to pay for so many high school graduates," said Jane Oates, executive director of the State Commission on Higher Education. "The program is still new, but there have to be some discussions now. There will have to be some cost sharing. We don\'t want to be raising the tuition for the second 20 percent of students (not eligible for STARS) just to pay for their slightly smarter peers."

The cost increase is of immediate concern in the southern part of the state, where colleges like Rowan and Stockton have a long tradition of accepting hundreds of transfer students annually from community colleges. If an average 20,000 of the state\'s more than 100,000 high school graduates are eligible for STARS each year, and just 1,000 students use it to complete a four-year degree, the cost of STARS II alone could exceed $20 million per year, most funded by the colleges who accept the students.

Kesselman said Stockton and its foundation already give more than $2 million per year in scholarships and aid and he would not want to have to shift that money to the STARS program and away from other, perhaps needier, students.

The state share of the STARS budget already doubled this year, from $7.6 million in 2006-07 to $13.8 million for 2007-08. Atlantic Cape Community College has 288 STARS scholars this year, up from 189 last year. Ocean County College has 450, up from 395 last year. About two-thirds are not eligible for other aid and will require all STARS funding from an already cash-strapped state.

"The program is helping to keep the best and brightest students in the state," said E. Michael Angulo, executive director of the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, which manages state financial aid programs. "But the cost is something we are monitoring. We are all being asked to tighten our belts, but if enrollment keeps rising, we do have to ask, \'How do we pay for this?\'"

College officials say the state should review all its financial aid programs. New Jersey is one of the most generous states in providing financial aid to needy students. The Tuition Aid Grant, or TAG, program budget is $230.2 million this year, and that still does not cover all eligible costs, which again are passed onto the colleges.

Assemblyman James Whelan, D-Atlantic, who serves on the Legislature\'s Higher Education Committee, said he\'s still delighted STARS is so popular because it\'s helping more students to attend college.

"This is a nice problem to have," he said. "If the program needs tweaking, we need to figure it out."

To e-mail Diane D\'Amico at The Press:

DDamico@pressofac.com

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Date Published: Monday, October 22, 2007 - 06:00
Source URL: Press of Atlantic City