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New State Initiative Will Fund College Tuition for High School Graduates

Candace Braun

The state of New Jersey recently passed legislation that will allow the top 20 percent of each high school's graduating class to receive free tuition to county colleges.

NJ STARS, or the Student Tuition Assistance Reward Scholarships program, was signed into law on June 29, at Camden County Community College. First proposed by Gov. James McGreevey in February during his budget address, the program will offer students free tuition to any of the state's 19 community colleges.

"NJ STARS poses a challenge to our high school students: You work hard and make the grades, and we will cover the cost of your education," Gov. McGreevey said in February.

The program will be funded by $10 million in the state's fiscal 2005 budget, which will be run by the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority. The program is estimated to create opportunities for 9,000 students.

Gov. McGreevey contended that the tax dollars invested in the state's community colleges will be returned in benefits to the state.

Princeton Regional School Board President Anne Burns said that she is very pleased with the state's initiative: "It's a wonderful opportunity for our kids to start school in New Jersey and stay in school in New Jersey ... It's a great start to quality education."

Ms. Burns added that the district typically loses approximately 20 percent of its students to other state schools, many of which don't return to New Jersey after graduation.

This year, approximately 17 students out of the 309 graduating seniors in Princeton High School will go on to community colleges in the fall, said the guidance department.

In anticipation of the passing of the legislation, Mercer County Community College began offering an application program for NJ STARS as early as April. Students wishing to enroll in the program for the fall of 2004 had to fill out a Federal Student Aid form by May 1. While students are required to fill out a financial aid form, admission to the program is not based on need.

"We want our top high school students to remain in-state and become part of our local economy," said MCCC President Robert Rose. "Mercer is eager to attract the best and brightest students."

According to the college's website, eligible students must sign up for at least 12 college-level credits to receive free tuition the first year. Students must continue to finish in the top 20 percent of their college class to continue receiving free tuition. Altogether, a student may receive up to five semesters' tuition free from the state.

This bill could potentially make a significant difference to high school students' performance in the real world, said Gov. McGreevey. Students with an associate degree earn up to $400,000 more over their lifetime. In addition, New Jersey's annual workforce earnings are $6.3 million greater, or the equivalent of 135,000 jobs, due to community colleges.

Other areas in education Gov. McGreevey has contributed to include increasing funding to state colleges and universities by $70 million, and increasing the Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG) program by $33.7 million, to create 6,000 new awards.

For more information on how to receive free tuition to Mercer County Community College, call the financial aid office at (609) 586-4800, ext. 3218, or visit www.mccc.edu.

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