Written by: Laura Pollack

Student ambassadors from the nineteen community colleges in New Jersey gathered at the state house in Trenton on Monday, March 5 to watch legislators vote on bill A1176 which would drastically cut their scholarship funding once they transfer to four year colleges.

The students, including three from Mercer, watched as state legislators, lead by Representative Pamela Lampitt from the sixth district, heard testimony and then voted the bill to proceed out of committee and await passing by the assembly and senate. Although no students were invited to testify in support or objection to the bill, all of the students that were in attendance may lose  4,000 dollars in funding for their higher education.

These students are part of the NJ STARS program which provides full scholarships to community colleges for students who have graduated in the top 15 percent of their public high school classes. If they maintain a GPA of 3.25 or higher and transfer within two years, they qualify for the NJ STARS II program. If the student’s GPA is between a 3.25 and a 3.5, then they receive 6,000 dollars per school year. If the student’s GPA is higher than 3.5, they receive 7,000 dollars per year.

Under the newly proposed legislation, upcoming NJ STARS II students will only receive 2,500 dollars per year toward their four-year college tuition if they maintained a GPA above a 3.25. The STARS II scholarship would only be able to be used toward tuition, not tuition and fees like it is under the current law.

If the legislation is passed, students currently in their third year of college enrolled in the STARS II program would still receive the old amounts of 6,000-7,000 dollars in funding for their fourth year. All other STARS students would get the newly proposed 2,500 dollar tuition scholarship per year.

Alexa Beyer, Vice President of the NJ STARS club at Mercer, was one of the three Mercer students in attendance to watch the assembly committee cut their STARS II scholarship.

“At that meeting we listened to different assembly members proposing new bills. All the members of the assembly seemed to think this was a great idea. This was appalling to all of us,” said Beyer. She continued, “I was extremely angered by the situation. They were glorifying a bill for a cut in higher education funding. They knew STARS students were sitting in there and listening and acted like this bill was a great thing in favor of the students.”

NJ Assemblyman Daniel R. Benson, who represents the 14th district, which includes portions of Mercer County, is a sponsor of the bill.

“What the bill does is makes a few changes in the way the program is run in hopes of keeping it around for a much longer time. The governor, when he first came in, made some drastic changes to the program that really looked like that was gonna be it,” said Benson in an interview with The VOICE.

He continued, “Although that’s a drop from what the amount was offered before, the main point here is that the program was going to disappear if there weren’t changes made. So our hope here is that by making these changes, and getting the governor to agree, that we can keep it going.

Professor and Advisor to  Mercer’s NJ STARS club, Diane Rizzo, said she is “very disappointed” with the state’s decision.

“STARS II has been widdled down tremendously from a program that used to provide full tuition scholarship coverage for students transferring to a public institution to something that will barley cover their fees,” said Rizzo.

Benson, however, believes that these cuts were necessary in order to keep the STARS II program alive. The previous way of funding the program and the amount of money being rewarded to each student was not going to be able to last much longer.

“The changes that were made in terms of the funding [for STARS II] would not keep it sustainable,” Benson said.

In an interview with NJToday.com, published on March 5 2012, Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt said, “In a way, these scholarship programs have been victims of their own success in tough economic times. In light of the higher education cuts these past few years, we hope these adjustments will provide more predictability and stability to these successful programs. Ultimately, we hope to retain New Jersey’s best and brightest students who plan to pursue higher education in one of our state’s great colleges and universities.”

The proposed legislation brings other changes to the STARS II program, aside from scholarship cuts. Once it is passed, NJ STARS II students will be able to attend any four-year New Jersey university and still receive the funding, as opposed to just public colleges.

“Right now it can only be used for public institutions. The whole purpose of this thing originally was to keep the best and brightest students in New Jersey. It shouldn’t matter what school they’re going to in New Jersey. We have some great private institutions as well,” said Benson.

The legislation also changes where the student’s NJ STARS II funding comes from. Under the proposed bill, the scholarship will be paid fully by the state, as opposed to the current law that says the funding must be paid evenly by both the state and the college.

Mercer’s President Dr. Patricia Donohue, believes that this legislation will make it easier on the universities. In an interview with The VOICE Donohue said, “When they created Stars II, I think people wanted to do wonderful things for students, but they didn’t think through the process. The state only paid a certain amount toward that STARS II scholarship and they just assumed that the colleges and universities would make up the rest.” She continued, “it was really problematic for the universities about how much of their budget they can dedicate to this with no revenue.”

This isn’t the first time STARS funding has been cut. Originally STARS funding went to students in the top 20 percent of their high school class, but the law was revised to include only students in the top 15 percent.

“I don’t think [the new bill] is going to hurt STARS students coming to Mercer or other community colleges because the funding for STARS students coming to community college is still the same as it has been for several years,” said Donohue.

The bill does make small changes to the STARS I funding, which effects students using the scholarship at Mercer and other community colleges. The scholarship will only cover tuition, rather than covering the cost of tuition and fees. Under the newly proposed legislation, community colleges will also be encouraged to bring in representatives from New Jersey four-year colleges to talk about the STARS II program at least once a year.

Benson said, “I think the biggest thing here is to make sure that a good program continues even during a time of tighter budgets, and hopefully with the changes more students will be able to take advantage of it. Personally, my hope is that if this is successful over the next couple of years, we can work to try to increase the benefit of it for the long term.”

“It’s only ever moved in one direction and that’s the direction of decreased funding,” said Rizzo.

Despite the hope to add more funding in the future, current STARS students are rethinking staying in the program and in state for their education.

“If the funding is cut, I will go out of state and NJ will loose a good student, and what’s more important to them, they will loose money. They will not only loose my money, but the money of hundreds of kids who are angered by this bill,” said Beyer.

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Laura Pollack

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