Murphy Offers Free Community College, But Cost Is Moving Target

Phil Murphy. Kevin B. Sanders for Observer

The Phil Murphy campaign had a tough time Monday figuring out what one of his core campaign promises would actually cost.

Murphy, the Democratic nominee for governor, told reporters at a campaign event Monday morning that his plan for tuition-free community college would cost the state roughly $400 million per year. But hours later his campaign said the program would cost half as much.

“The community college piece is probably something in the area of $400 million a year,” Murphy said during a news conference at Mercer County Community College, where he was joined by Sen. Cory Booker. “And if you look at a $35 billion budget, which is what we have, and you look at the impact you could make with that investment, it’s an overwhelming return and high priority.”

Immediately after the event, Murphy campaign spokesman Derek Roseman walked back the candidate’s comment, saying that the $400 million figure was a “top-line estimate” and that the true cost could be lower. Another campaign spokesman, Daniel Bryan, said it was impossible to know the actual cost given a number of variables, such as how much federal aid the state receives for community colleges.

Hours later, the Murphy campaign settled on a new figure: $200 million.

“Tennessee, one of the few states with a free community college program, experienced a state cost of $34 million. Murphy estimates that a New Jersey program could cost up to $200 million,” the campaign said in a news release.

For what it’s worth, a Murphy-backed think tank, New Start New Jersey, pegged the cost of tuition-free community college at $58 million per year in 2014. Oregon at the time was expecting its version of the program to cost between $100 million and $200 million, the New Start report said.

Murphy’s math snafu comes as his Republican rival, Kim Guadagno, has attacked him over plans to raise some taxes and increase spending in some areas. Murphy’s campaign said he would raise $1.3 billion in revenue by increasing taxes for millionaires and large corporations, and by legalizing and taxing the sale of recreational marijuana.

At the event Monday, Murphy accused Gov. Chris Christie’s administration of starving colleges of state aid, causing tuition to increase, and said that would change if he’s elected governor.

“Nobody should be shut out of today’s fast and competitive economy, especially because they cannot afford to learn,” Murphy said. “I’m committed to making community college tuition-free for all New Jerseyans. That won’t happen overnight, but if we grow our economy and prudently manage our finances we will get there sooner rather than later.”

Four states offer free community college: Tennessee, Oregon, New York and Rhode Island.

Murphy Offers Free Community College, But Cost Is Moving Target