Thousands of New Jersey students will begin attending community colleges tuition-free in January – though not in every county.

Gov. Phil Murphy sought $50 million in the new state budget for the program, but lawmakers instead provided $25 million. That was a concession to Murphy, as the Legislature’s initial version of budget bill provided $5 million – all for colleges to plan the program, not for students.

The 19 community colleges in New Jersey have until the end of August to apply for the pilot program that the state is calling the Community College Innovation Challenge. The Office of the Secretary of Higher Education and Higher Education Student Assistance Authority will then select participants.

Higher Education Secretary Zakiya Smith Ellis declined to speculate how many counties will be chosen for the initial pilot program, saying it depends on the quality of the applications and the size of those deemed most worthy of selection.

“We’re excited about the amount that we did get, we’re excited for the support,” Ellis said. “But we do not have enough funding to provide the governor’s request of providing tuition and fee support to all students who make less than $45,000 in the first year to all of the county colleges.

“There’s just not enough money because we didn’t get the amount that we asked for,” she said. “So we do have to figure out a way to do what we can with the resources that we have.”

David Socolow, HESAA’s executive director, said students often don’t think they can afford college tuition and so don’t even apply for financial aid that is possible.

“If we make a simple declaration that county college will be tuition- and fee-free within this certain income range, that’s a message that cuts through the clutter and will encourage more students to enroll and to ultimately get those post-secondary credentials that matter so much in the economy.”

Decisions about participating schools will be based on the quality of the applications and how colleges’ cost projections fit within statewide program funding constraints. The Murphy administration also prefers ensuring schools are participating from across the state.

“The criteria that we use will be their capacity to actually enroll and recruit new students, the quality of their plans for supporting students to actually complete their credentials, and then their costs,” Ellis said. “So we’ll be looking at how much the plans will cost at all the different colleges and also their plans for keeping costs down in the future as we think about how to build this program out to more colleges.”

Among the criteria in the application is a request that colleges outline the steps they intend to take to keep tuition and fee increases at reasonable levels in the 2019-20 academic year and beyond.

Students at participating colleges with adjusted gross incomes of $45,000 or less who are taking six or more credits will be eligible to attend two-year schools without paying tuition or fees starting in the 2019 spring semester.

The state has $20 million to spend on Community College Opportunity Grants. The CCOG awards are “last dollar” scholarships, meaning they will cover costs not covered by other federal or state grants the student receives.

Socolow said the full cost of providing tuition-free community college for the spring semester to all students in New Jersey with incomes under $45,000 would have been “a little under $40 million.” That would have covered around 24,000 students.

“That would have been the statewide program,” Socolow said. “We didn’t get that level of funding, so we’re doing it at select schools.”

All colleges that submit applications will be eligible to receive a “capacity building grant” of at least $250,000 for planning, outreach and recruitment of eligible students for future phases of the program.

Murphy hopes to eventually make two years of community college tuition- and fee-free for all students.

Participating institutions will be notified by Sept. 28.

Ellis said that increasing the accessibility of community colleges will help the economy and encourage employers to settle in the state.

“Covering tuition and fees for students at county colleges or community colleges is really kind of an economic development and talent development win for the state,” Ellis said.

“When people have higher levels of education, they’re less likely to use public benefits in any form. They will more likely get a higher income, which means they will pay more in taxes,” Ellis said. “Unfortunately, our traditional budget accounting doesn’t allow us to count those kinds of things, but it pays dividends when people are better educated.”