Rutgers-Camden will sharply cut campus costs for many incoming freshmen, eliminating tuition for the lowest-income students.
After completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and receiving federal and state grants, students with household income of $60,000 or less will receive Rutgers-Camden "Bridging the Gap" grants to pay for any remaining tuition and general campus fees.
Students from families making between $60,000 and $100,000 will receive grants for half their remaining costs after government aid.
The head of a national group representing state higher education policymakers lauded the new program as an "important commitment" that can help boost students' academic success. An association of New Jersey state colleges called the move "significant."
The program could also help ease "brain drain" of students out of the state and make college more affordable, they said.
Universitywide tuition for in-state arts and science undergraduate students - the broadest cohort - is $11,217 this year. With fees, Rutgers-Camden students see a sticker price of $14,000 a year. On-campus room and board could add nearly $12,000.
"You hear a lot about education costs and stuff, but where can we put our dollars to really help those in need?" said Craig Westman, who this summer joined Rutgers-Camden as associate chancellor for enrollment management.
"How do we really fulfill our mission here at Rutgers-Camden, which has an access mission?"
That mission, a point of pride for the campus, means the school attracts not only many low-income and first-generation college students, but also many part-time, adult, transfer, and other "nontraditional" students. A majority of Rutgers-Camden students arrive by transferring from another institution.
The "Bridging the Gap" program will be tested with "traditional" full-time students who arrive straight from high school.
More than a quarter have parents who did not attend college. Another quarter have parents with some college but less than a bachelor's degree.
Only New Jersey residents who start school next fall after graduating from high school in 2016 will qualify for the program. Students must be U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
Of those 400 or so expected students, more than half will be eligible for the aid initiative, with family incomes less than $100,000 and unmet need from government aid.
Most of Rutgers-Camden's 4,500 undergraduates receive financial assistance. Westman said some of the "Bridging the Gap" money will be reappropriated from existing aid money.
Rutgers-Camden says its program is the first in the state, though other public colleges and universities have their own financial aid initiatives. The state's Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) is one source of money for school aid.
But EOF and other programs like it are aimed at the lowest-income students, leaving some students in a financial aid hole, experts say - making enough money so they did not qualify for the low-income programs, but not enough to pay for college out of pocket.
"A lot of these students will still get some grant aid, but not nearly enough to cover the costs," said George Pernsteiner, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, a national group.
"Right now, much of their financial aid has to come from loans, and being able to reduce the loans actually gives them a better opportunity, upon graduation, of participating in the workforce and in the economy."
Pernsteiner said versions of the program have been tried at other schools, including for many years in flagship public colleges in Washington and California.
What is unusual, he said, is to see such a program come from a regional rather than flagship campus. "Bridging the Gap" applies only to Rutgers-Camden, and not to the New Brunswick or Newark campuses.
"In some ways, that makes it an even more important statement, because not only are the resources of a regional campus less than at the flagships, but oftentimes the students who come to them come less prepared and have less money," Pernsteiner said.
Michael W. Klein, head of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities - which does not include Rutgers - said the Camden program could help stem the "brain drain" from the state, with some 30,000 high school graduates each year leaving New Jersey for college.
"All of the senior public colleges and universities in New Jersey are dealing with limited resources, and face a great challenge in how best to allocate those resources. We want to examine the details of Rutgers-Camden's program while applauding its announcement today."
Westman said he hopes the increased financial support will lead to more focus on academics. Students, for example, may need to work fewer hours.
A Rutgers-Camden survey found that about 56 percent of all undergraduate students work 20 or more hours a week, Westman said.
"So we want to help at that end and also to reduce the workload and advise students: You're part of the program. Take advantage of it, work less," he said.
Pernsteiner said reducing students' financial needs can affect their success in several ways, including giving them more time to devote to their classes and also allowing them to take more classes, keeping themselves on track to graduate.
Students will have to reapply for the Rutgers-Camden grants each year. In order to continue to qualify, they will have to maintain good academic standing, including completing the 30 credit hours necessary to move toward graduating in four years.
"Affordable tuition alone is not enough," Phoebe Haddon, the chancellor of Rutgers-Camden, said in a statement.
"At Rutgers-Camden, we are committed to making certain that our students have a diversity of experiential learning opportunities and all of the support services that they need to graduate and to maximize their Rutgers experience."