West Windsor, N.J. – As part of an ongoing effort to support student success, Mercer County Community College (MCCC) hosted Dr. Zakiya Smith Ellis, Secretary of Higher Education, and other state officials for one leg of the 2019 Garden State Graduation Tour.
The tour, which consists of a series of college visits and events, is designed to spur discussions about college affordability. At Mercer, the conversation focused on New Jersey's Community College Opportunity Grants (CCOG) and other programs that assist students with tuition.
“We are excited by the overwhelming response of student stakeholders to participate in the discussion groups,” Ellis said. “These workgroups will help us take a comprehensive look at strategies to increase support for students at New Jersey’s colleges and we appreciate their time and dedication to the future of higher education in the state.”
“I wouldn’t be here without CCOG," said Jessica Golembiewski. “I’m the first one in my family to go to college, so when I found out I was awarded the grant I just started crying.”
Though the students and government officials recognized CCOG’s merits, both sides focused on areas of improvement. “When we initiated CCOG, it took the colleges a while to accept the offer,” Benson noted. “People didn’t think there was a program that was entirely free.”
The students affirmed that, despite the program’s often life-changing impacts, the process of learning about CCOG needs to be streamlined.
“We should have more in-person info sessions,” said Debbie Jones. Jones, a returning adult student from Ewing, is studying to be a paralegal. She is also a few credits shy of being eligible to substitute teach. “All ages would be interested in this program. But face-to-face contact is pivotal in our communities."
Also discussed were the application requirements. The students noted that while the government expedited the applications – students recalled being accepted as quickly as eight days after applying – the application process still presented some barriers to entry.
“It was very difficult to receive aid before I turned 24,” said Jessica Bookholdt, a physics major at Mercer. "I couldn’t file independently, so I was forced to wait until my birthday to apply for CCOG.”
Despite the hiccups, the consensus was that CCOG’s pilot semester was largely a success. “I should have gone back to school 10 years ago,” Jones said. “But I’m glad I waited because CCOG will allow me to finish my education debt-free.”
New Jersey's new Community College Opportunity Grant program was piloted this spring, providing free tuition for students whose household income does not exceed $45,000 after other financial aid has been applied. It is part of Governor Murphy's 2020 budget proposal, to be voted on by the state legislature by July 1. With passage, students who qualify will receive free tuition for the fall semester.