Students will have to work harder to qualify for two popular New Jersey scholarship programs because of legislation passed yesterday in the state Senate and Assembly.

In addition, those in the programs will no longer have full tuition covered at four-year colleges and will be subject to a family income cap of $250,000.

The changes affect the New Jersey Student Tuition Assistance Reward Scholarship programs, better known as NJSTARS and NJSTARS II. The programs have allowed students who met certain academic criteria to attend New Jersey public community colleges and finish at four-year state colleges, both tuition-free.

Under the legislation, which passed the Assembly, 65-10, and the Senate, 33-4, the criteria for aid will be tougher. The measure, which Gov. Corzine is expected to sign, would go into effect next fall.

High school students will have to graduate in the top 15 percent of their class, rather than the current top 20 percent, to qualify for NJSTARS.

Students must also take college-placement tests to prove they are college-ready. Currently, about 30 percent of incoming NJSTARS students require remedial education. With the proposed change, students will have to complete remedial work at their own expense before receiving scholarships.

For NJSTARS students to qualify for NJSTARS II, they must graduate from community college with a 3.25 grade point average, instead of the current 3.0. Rather than free tuition, NJSTARS II students will get $6,000 a year if their average is between 3.25 and 3.49 and $7,000 if it is higher.

There are two exceptions. Current NJSTARS college sophomores can get into NJSTARS II with a 3.0 average, and NJSTARS II who are now juniors will continue tuition-free.

In the spring, Corzine ran into opposition when he proposed cutting the programs by limiting eligibility to students whose families earn no more than $100,000. A 12-member panel of legislators and education officials was appointed to find ways to tighten eligibility and limit growth of the programs, which had grown to about $16 million and about 5,000 students since NJSTARS started with 930 students in 2004.

The committee also sought to ease the burden on the state's senior colleges. Under NJSTARS II, schools receive only $4,100 per student - less than half of their tuition - requiring them to subsidize students they said they might not have otherwise.

Supporters characterized the new legislation as a compromise.

Limiting eligibility to the top 15 percent of a high school's graduating class "is not what anyone would have chosen in better times, but I think it's the best possible solution," said Jane Oates, head of the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education, who noted that the governor wanted an income cap.

Oates, like others involved in the changes, acknowledged that it was not known how much, if any, money would be saved. In a bad economy, Oates said, more people could be drawn to NJSTARS, but "we have to assume [the changes] will at least reduce eligibility."

Jacob Farbman, spokesman for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, said it was good that the legislature acted before its holiday break.

"Families need to know if this program is going to be available to them because they're making college decisions now," he said.

Jeffrey Maggio, 18, a NJSTARS student at Gloucester County College who hopes to be a math teacher, was pleased the program wasn't cut more.

"Now to get a good job, you have to get an education," said Maggio, whose older sister is also in the program. "It helps out a lot of people."

Maggio, of Deptford, works part time at Wal-Mart; his father is a manager at a trucking company and his mother is a substitute teacher. He said that he would have gone to college no matter what but that without NJSTARS he would have been looking at loans.

Shamira Robinson, 19, of Blackwood, said she would likely take out loans if she moves on to Rowan University under NJSTARS II after graduating from Camden County College.

The daughter of an administrative assistant and an electrician, she said she always wanted to go to college but didn't know how to pay for it. She, too, felt that the cuts could have been worse but wished the eligibility requirements could have stayed the same so more people could benefit.

Said the aspiring Spanish teacher: "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for STARS."

Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.