WEST WINDSOR — Gov. Phil Murphy believes community college will be free for everyone in New Jersey, regardless of their economic status, in as little as three years.

During a roundtable discussion Thursday at Mercer County Community College, the Democratic governor further outlined his plan for tuition-free schooling at the state's 19 county colleges.

His proposed Fiscal Year 2019 budget includes $50 million for the cause — "the first major down payment," as he describes it, to keep college in reach for many of the state's young people and families.

Most of the $50 million would serve as "last-dollar" grants for students, from lower-income families, who've exhausted all other grant options. It's estimated the move would allow an additional 15,000 students to attend tuition-free in January.

The remaining $5 million would assist community colleges with building capacity to better handle increased enrollments.

During the roundtable discussion, Murphy estimated his ultimate goal would require a commitment of $200 million from the state. He said that's a modest investment to help the best and brightest stay in the state.

"We can't do it overnight because it's not free," Murphy said. "We believe we could get there in a short number of years. We think, in particular, we could get there over the course of three years."

Responding to Murphy's plans, Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean said taxpayers would get the raw end of the deal. While more must be done to increase the accessibility and affordability of higher education, he said, it needs to be done responsibly.

"We can partner with industry leaders to make sure students are getting the right skills to succeed in today's workforce. We can do more to bring down the cost of college and help students graduate on time," Kean said. "What we shouldn't do is force overtaxed families to pick up the tab for Governor Murphy's spending spree."

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