On tap this week: Higher-ed tuition study commission proposal

TRENTON – Conducting a comprehensive study of one of the more novel – and controversial – approaches to helping students pay for college will be up for discussion this week in the Legislature.

S2965 would establish a Higher Education Tuition Study Commission to look into a concept often dubbed “Pay Forward, Pay Back.”

The idea is simple: A student does not pay tuition up front, but agrees to pay back a percentage of their post-graduate income over a certain period of time.

The details are more complex.  And that would be the mission of this commission: Scrutinize every aspect of the proposal.

The bottom line in high-cost-of-living New Jersey – where students graduate with an average debt of about $26,000, according to some – is that higher education is increasingly out of reach for many students, and for some it just makes more financial sense to attend college in some other state.

The upper-chamber bill is sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney, (D-3), West Deptford, who during his re-election campaign held at least one campaign appearance at which he made time with his District 3 running mates to tout the advantages of the concept.

 “We are denying young people their future,’’ Sweeney said two weeks ago. 

Assembly members Celeste Riley, (D-3) and John Wisniewski, (D-19), have sponsored the companion bill in the lower chamber.

The bill would establish a commission whose members would include the Higher Education secretary; three gubernatorial picks who would be the presidents of a county college, of a public research university and of a state college; and three public members recommended by the Senate president, Assembly speaker and a joint pick of the Minority leaders.

If the panel decides a “pay forward’’ pilot is warranted, it would send to legislators a proposal that identifies the participating schools and establishes an immediate funding source for the first 15 to 20 years of the pilot program, including a revolving fund to deposit payments made under the program.

The idea – which is under consideration in Oregon as well as some other states – does not have universal support.

The American Federation of Teachers, for one, has said it fears the idea merely shifts or delays financial burdens instead of addressing them outright.

In a statement that also carried the backing of organizations such as the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Rutgers Council of AAUP Chapters, AFT Local 6323, AFT said that such a proposal may increase the overall cost of education and do nothing to reverse a trend of state disinvestment in higher education.

“As a result of Pay It Forward, the poorest students who currently receive grant aid for tuition and fees would likely end up paying thousands more than they otherwise would have,” the letter said.

“We are heartened that state lawmakers are taking the student debt crisis seriously and are seeking solutions. However, these solutions need to actively attack, not obscure, the root cause of rising student costs and debt.”

But in announcing plans for the study commission in August, Sweeney said he wants the bill passed before the session expires. Under the bill, the study panel would have one year to do its exploratory work.

“We need to do something different. This doesn’t work anymore,” he said. “The cost of higher education is getting away from the middle class.”

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Commission would study feasibility of ‘pay forward’ tuition program On tap this week: Higher-ed tuition study commission proposal