The lunch at New Jersey's 19 community colleges isn't free. But the tuition and fees will be, if Gov. Murphy has his way.
Murphy, a Democrat, championed free community college during his campaign and last week proposed the first step toward that goal, what he called "a major down payment." It called for $50 million in increased funding, with $45 million for a new financial aid program for low-income students and $5 million going to the two-year schools to accommodate the expected increase in enrollment.
"We believe we can achieve the ultimate objective of free community college for everybody, regardless of your circumstances, in three years," Murphy said at an announcement event at Mercer County Community College.
The aim is to make higher education accessible to all who want it, reverse dramatically declining enrollment at two-year schools, boost the state economy by training the local workforce, and retain more students in a state that has a notoriously high level of brain drain.
But while presidents of the two-year schools — which enroll nearly half of the state's undergraduates — and their four-year counterparts applauded the governor's attempt to address ever-rising college costs, they questioned whether the money would be more wisely directed elsewhere. Their suggestions included sending the money directly to schools for academic-support services or making the new financial aid available to all students regardless of school.
"If I had any say in the matter, that would be really the focus of the conversation at the state level: How do we strategically best use money available to help students succeed? I think that is really a very big conversation, rather than just 'give everybody free tuition,' " said Don Borden, the president of Camden County College.
Borden said his students face a variety of issues that go far beyond tuition, and he would prefer some of the money be given directly to the college so it could expand support services such as academic advising and tutoring. "It's not simple. There's nothing simple about it, and that's the issue. You can throw money at whatever you want, and how you spend the money is the real question."
Frederick Keating, the president of Rowan College at Gloucester County, said some of his community-college students would benefit, but he noted the state already has financial aid programs, including Educational Opportunity Fund programs for low-income students; NJ STARS for academically high-performing high school graduates; and Tuition Aid Grants to fill some of the gap left after federal programs such as Pell Grants.
Keating led a state task force on college affordability that in 2016 recommended changes to help students graduate on time and revamping financial aid, but did not endorse tuition-free community college.
"Student aid should be based on financial need and follow the student wherever he or she chooses to attend," said Stockton University president Harvey Kesselman.
Under Murphy's plan, the financial aid would go to newly created Community College Opportunity Grants to cover any remaining costs not covered by other financial aid sources. The governor said that would allow 15,000 students to attend community college without paying for tuition and fees, which on average cost just under $5,000. About 29,600 students currently do not pay tuition and fees, he said.
Susan A. Cole, president of Montclair State University, raised the issue of unequal treatment for the state's neediest students.
"We absolutely should not be creating a policy that funnels students into community college because they come from families with fewer economic resources," she said. "New Jersey students deserve affordable access to the public higher education opportunity that is consistent with their abilities and their educational objectives."
Some presidents said they were concerned that state would be creating a de facto K-14 system. Others said "free" and "affordable" were quite different concepts.
Critics have expressed concern about the eventual costs of free community college, which Murphy on the campaign trail pegged at $200 million. That and other educational programs would be funded through a $1.6 billion revenue boost from increasing the sales tax and tax on high-income residents. Murphy's budget proposal is now before the state legislature, which has until July to pass a budget.
State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who is blocking the confirmation of Murphy's education and higher education cabinet posts over questions about education funding, declined to comment on the community college proposal.
Murphy's community-college proposal is "part and parcel of his larger liberal agenda," including free pre-K and job training initiatives, said Patrick Murray, polling director at Monmouth University. "There's a whole host of national issues that he wants to try out here in New Jersey."
"The vast majority of New Jerseyans are not paying close attention to what Phil Murphy is actually proposing. Quite frankly, they didn't when he was running for governor, either," Murray said. "The question is: Does public opinion turn against him once he starts implementing these things, or support him?"
A Monmouth University Poll released this week found that, while Murphy is beginning his governorship with higher approval ratings than his two predecessors, more than half of New Jersey residents believe property taxpayers will be hurt by his proposals.
"There's a concern the middle class is going to get screwed when these things get going," Murray said.
Several other states, beginning with Tennessee, have sought to make community college free in various ways. It's become an increasingly popular political idea since 2015, when former President Barack Obama proposed making community college free across the nation. The proposal has been floated in Pennsylvania, and a Senate bill could soon be introduced in Pennsylvania, said John Neurohr with the Keystone Research Center, which supports the idea.
Programs have boosted enrollment in some states, an appealing prospect for New Jersey. In 2016, the latest year for which data are available, the state's community colleges enrolled 71,949 full-time students, down more than 25 percent since the Great Recession enrollment peak six years prior.
"It's not going to be a silver bullet for the enrollment challenges the state faces," Michael Cioce, acting president of Rowan College at Burlington County, said, noting a projected decline of high school graduates in the Northeast. Cioce was also unsure how Murphy's plan would specifically affect his college, but he said he likes the proposal.
Jianping Wang, the president of Mercer County Community College, sat beside Murphy when he unveiled his proposal. She said she supported it, but did not directly answer when asked whether the money could be better spent addressing college affordability in other ways.
Several presidents said they are anxious to learn the details of Murphy's plan.
"People ask me what I think of Murphy's plan. And I say that's a different question from what do I think of Murphy's philosophy," said Borden, the Camden County College president. "Because the philosophy is great. But I haven't seen a plan, and it's hard for me to weigh in until I do."