The spring semester begins this week at many New Jersey colleges – and for around 13,000 students at 13 community colleges, it will be no-fee and tuition-free for the first time because of a new state grant program.

Community College Opportunity Grant program pays for whatever tuition and approved educational fees aren’t covered by federal and state need-based aid and merit scholarships, for students with adjusted gross incomes of $45,000 or less.

David Socolow, executive director of the state Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, said students who have already filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, are automatically considered for the program without having to do anything.

“If they didn’t fill out their FAFSA, and they’re going to community college this spring at one of those 13 pilot institutions for at least six credits, at least half time, they have until Feb. 15 to complete that FAFSA,” Socolow said.

Socolow said the state won’t know until April how many students receive grants through the program but estimates it will be around 13,000.

“We’ll see what happens. We hope for more,” Socolow said. “The goal is to have as many students who can benefit from county college attend, so that we can increase the total number of people in our society and our workforce who have a post-secondary education that will help them in their careers and help our economy.”

“For many students, it’s already essentially free because of the aid that they’re getting but there are a number of students who are paying out of pocket or taking out loans to go to county college," he said.

The budget for the program is $25 million, which included money for planning grants for the colleges. That wasn’t as much money as Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration had requested, so it was limited in its first year to the spring semester and to 13 pilot colleges.

State officials hope the program also leads to an increase in federal student aid into New Jersey.

“There have been numerous studies that have shown that students don’t fill out the application for student aid, the FAFSA, because they think that it’s not available for them. But that when they do fill it out, lots of students turn out to be eligible for aid,” Socolow said.

“And we believe that of the close to a third of students attending community college who do not complete the FAFSA, that many of them are going to turn out to be eligible for aid,” he said. “And we hope that this will encourage them to do so.”

The pilot colleges:

  • Atlantic Cape Community College
  • Bergen Community College
  • Camden County College
  • Cumberland County College
  • Hudson County Community College
  • Mercer County Community College
  • Middlesex County College
  • Ocean County College
  • Passaic County Community College
  • Rowan College at Gloucester County
  • Salem Community College
  • Union County College
  • Warren County Community College

Those not in the program: Brookdale Community College, Rowan College at Burlington County, County College of Morris, Essex County College, Raritan Valley Community College and Sussex County Community College.

The Murphy administration hopes to expand it to both semesters next academic year and the six of 19 community colleges not included in the pilot program – but that depends on what’s in the state budget due to be approved in June.