TRENTON - New Jersey's colleges should reconsider the traditional "high aid, high tuition" funding model long in place, a task force on college affordability was told Wednesday.

Steven M. Rose, president of Passaic County Community College, said he believed the funding model had grown unconsciously over time: When the state cut or limited funding, public colleges and universities would raise tuition, and the state money would go toward financial aid instead.

Students from wealthy families can pay full price, Rose said, and students from low-income families can receive financial aid. But the students in the middle can get caught in the gap between being able to afford college and qualifying for need-based financial aid, said Rose, who also is chairman of the New Jersey Presidents' Council, an organization of the state's college and university presidents.

"When you look at it, how it works in reality is the fact that, yes, our neediest students are well taken care of, and they're inoculated from the high tuition. But there's a huge group of students - and I would argue a growing group of students - that is caught in the middle of this," Rose told the College Affordability Study Commission, impaneled by the Legislature and given 18 months to offer recommendations.

Huge concern

Those students - "not quite in the middle class and not quite poor enough to qualify for these [aid] programs" - should be a huge concern for the state's colleges and universities, Rose said, in part because they are taking on greater debt than ever before as they pursue college degrees.

"We're going to be a high-aid, high-tuition state. I don't think that's a question," Rose said. Rather, he called for a look at the implications of the model and the ways it could be modified.

Wednesday's meeting was the commission's second. The panel is chaired by Frederick Keating, president of Rowan College at Gloucester County, and its members include Ali A. Houshmand, president of Rowan University.

Much of the discussion Wednesday focused on community colleges, including how the two-year colleges could partner with four-year schools and high schools. Because the state's 19 community colleges are cheaper to attend than four-year colleges and universities, the community colleges are a major entry point for students seeking an affordable college degree.

Funding levels

Rose's presentation included a series of other recommendations, including the expansion of "prior learning assessment," under which schools give college credit for nonacademic work or life experience.

Commission members raised concerns about state funding levels, but they appeared to agree that asking for more money from the state would not be a sustainable, long-term solution. Houshmand said he believed state funding would eventually dry up.

Gov. Christie's budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1 cuts direct operating aid to the state colleges and universities. The Legislature has until June 30 to approve a budget.