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December 31, 2008
By Pamela Lampitt
In just a few years, NJ STARS has been wildly successful — almost too much so.
Over the past decade, New Jersey has faced a real problem — "brain drain." Many of our top students, the cream of our academic crop, have been leaving the state in droves, deciding to attend colleges in neighboring Pennsylvania, Delaware or New York, if not even farther out of state.
The Garden State was left with two choices: act, or watch even more students put down roots in other states.
It was with this problem in mind that the Legislature established the NJ STARS program.
Created in 2004, NJ STARS gives our best and brightest students merit scholarships to cover tuition at New Jersey's county colleges, with the opportunity to work toward a bachelor's degree from one of the state's four-year public colleges if they continue to achieve academically.
Top 20 percent
Currently, students must rank in the top 20 percent of their high school class and maintain a 3.0 grade point average throughout their college studies to be eligible for a STARS scholarship. This truly is an opportunity-focused program, with merit-based aid to students kicking in only after a student has exhausted all options for need-based aid.
The students who benefit from NJ STARS might otherwise choose not to attend college at all or to attend college out of state, exacerbating New Jersey's brain drain. By encouraging these students to go to school in-state and giving them the opportunity of affordable higher education, we increase the odds that they will settle down in New Jersey and make their home here.
In addition to improving our communities, the retention of these students would strengthen New Jersey's economic future – one that increasingly will rely on a highly-skilled, well-educated workforce.
In just a few years, NJ STARS has been wildly successful — almost too much so. Thousands of students are now pursuing affordable, high-quality college educations. But with increased student participation and shrinking federal aid, the program has been a victim of its own success.
What cost the state only $1.7 million in 2005 has already ballooned to $14.7 million this year.
Earlier this year, the Legislature successfully saved NJ STARS from budget cuts that would have immediately excluded at least one-third of participating students — a truly devastating blow given the economy.
Unfortunately, New Jersey's economic situation has gotten even worse. With cuts to valuable programs all but inevitable in the next state budget, programs like NJ STARS will surely be on the chopping block.
This summer, I was part of a 12-member task force created to examine potential reforms of the NJ STARS program. Alongside education leaders, legislators from both parties and both houses of the Legislature and university officials, we worked tirelessly to develop reforms that could ensure NJ STARS' long-term viability and sustainability.
The reforms proposed would increase the minimum eligible grade point average for NJ STARS II – the four-year college side of the equation – from 3.0 to 3.25, increase the number of credits a student could take each semester, cap eligible family income while ensuring that 90 percent of New Jersey families can participate and provide tuition assistance in a way that is fair to both students and schools.
The reforms save approximately $3 million in the next year alone. More importantly, they will ensure students will be able to plan and to count on the program's continued existence.
These reforms aren't anybody's idea of a walk in the park. As a parent of college-age children, I know they're tough for some families. But without these changes, NJ STARS would likely face drastic cuts, if not elimination. That's not an alternative anyone should be willing to accept.
Today, we are again faced with two choices: act, or do nothing and accept the real risk that a valuable program that provides lasting opportunities to hundreds of New Jersey students each year will fade quietly into the night.
It's tough medicine, but the reforms currently awaiting Governor Corzine's signature into law are the right thing to do. Through their implementation, we can greatly increase the odds that this program can continue into the future and provide a sustainable benefit to every student who wants to go to college in New Jersey.
Pamela Lampitt represents the 6th Legislative District (Camden County) in the General Assembly. She is also the vice-chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee.