At Wednesday's hearing of the New Jersey College Affordability Study Commission, a representative from the state Council of County Colleges and several county college presidents put forth ideas including exploring eligibility expansion for NJ STARS, the New Jersey Student Tuition Assistance Reward Scholarship.

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NJ STARS offers up to five semesters of tuition for high school students ranked in the top 15 percent of their class. Fees and books are not included. The scholarship was designed to allow students to accumulate credits that can be transferred to a four-year college, making that second institute of higher learning less expensive because students wouldn't have to complete the full four years there.

"I am acutely aware that the community college proposal will cost some additional state funds to implement," said Jon Larson, president of Ocean County College. "Specifically, about $2.5 million to expand the STARS program from the top 15 percent to the top 20 percent of the junior/senior class rank, and about $7.5 million to expand this program to the top 25 percent of high school graduates."

Either choice would be great in a state like New Jersey that has a budget of well over $30 billion, Larson said.

"It's hard to imagine any other program with such a far-reaching impact for so little cost," he said.

The NJ STARS program is important, said commission chairman Frederick Keating. He said it helps retain New Jersey talent and gives that talent an opportunity to get an affordable education, which strengthens the state even more.

"We know as community college leaders that students who come to New Jersey's community colleges tend to stay and work and contribute to New Jersey's economy, ultimately," said Linda Lam, vice president of the Council of County Colleges.

According to the website College Tuition Compare, the average cost of tuition and fees at New Jersey's four-year public colleges for 2015 is $18,043 per year. The same website shows tuition and fees cost $11,427 just five years ago.

Numbers from the Statistic Brain Research Institute show that:

  • 60 percent of students take out a loan for college;
  • The average college loan debt per student is $30,000;
  • 12.25 million students take out college loans annually;
  • There is $1.1 trillion in outstanding college loan debt in the U.S.

Polling for the Progressive Change Institute, by GBA Strategies, indicates likely 2016 presidential race voters support the federal government helping states achieve debt-free college by a margin of 71 to 19 percent.