Alternative Higher Education why you should keep your grades up, even if you're not going away for college

As of 2010, US Student Loan debt was not even a line item on the US Debt Clock. Now, in 2017, student debt is above 1.4 trillion and counting.

The US debt clock in 2012 (left) and 2017 (right).

2010 is an important year - it’s the year that community college enrollment started to decline after it hit a record high in 2009. The US Census reports that community colleges have declined at the second highest rate, behind for-profit colleges.

College being too expensive is a common frustration among students, but New Jersey has a program in place to subsidize a community college education for bright students who can’t or choose not to afford a 4-year college.

Students graduating high school in the top 15% of their class are offered the prestigious NJ STARS scholarship to subsidize their community college education. Eligibility is determined at the end of either junior or senior year.

Mariana Valer, a freshman at Warren County Community College, is one such student.

“I applied to a very expensive college, Drexel, and ended up being consumed by fees and was going to end up paying close to $60,000 a year. A YEAR. So I personally decided to stay at home and save as much as possible to be able to comfortably go to college and focus on school…”
After realizing the cost of a 4-year education, Valer saw copious amounts of ramen noodles in her future: “It's a real struggle to find a way to survive and also study.”

Valer is one of fewer and fewer students who are offered this scholarship and take advantage of it. Acceptance of the NJ STARS scholarship has been declining since 2010, the year after college enrollment hit it’s all-time-high, in 2009.

According to the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA), “There have been a number of changes to both the NJ STARS and NJ STARS II program which have impacted enrollment trends. Most notably, in 2009-2010 eligibility for the NJ STARS program was reduced to the top 15% of the high school class from the top 20%.”

HESAA continued to explain that decreased enrollment in the NJ STARS program diminishes eligibility for the NJ STARS II Program, which was designed to help NJ STARS students continue their education at one of New Jersey’s 4-year colleges.

“...Students must graduate as an NJ STARS scholar in order to be eligible to participate in NJ STARS II. Finally, the passage of P.L. 2012, c.8 reduced the NJ STARS II scholarship from either $6,000 or $7,000 (depending on GPA) to $2,500 and may have affected some students’ decisions to participate in the NJ STARS program,” continued HESAA.

NJ STARS has a low program enrollment rate, and HESAA is aware. In fact, they only budgeted $6.9 million to cover the costs of the NJ STARS scholarship, even when they projected that they would need $8.147 million for fiscal year 2016.

HESAA explained that they made that projection based on 2014 data, and that “It did not even have preliminary program enrollment data for FY 2015 as institutions do not submit rosters to HESAA until later in the year. Upon receiving those institutional rosters and observing a further decline in enrollments in the NJ STARS program specifically and in community college enrollment in general, the projections were adjusted downward.”

This downward adjustment might also be explained by a sudden and more stringent enforcement of existing criteria for the program.

According to an article from late March 2014, “At least 14 students expecting to receive the state’s NJ STARS scholarship have been told they won’t be getting the money this year after all because state officials have learned they had been using the wrong criteria to hand out the popular scholarship for years...”

The article continues to explain that many students were turned away because of when they had been evaluated for the NJ STARS program. Prior to 2014, students were being evaluated for the NJ STARS program during their junior year of high school. The 14+ students who had been turned away had not maintained that top 15% criteria through the course of their senior year, so they lost eligibility.

The video above was originally featured in an article from September 2012, read it here.

Since this conflict, HESAA has considered changing it’s policy.

“On February 26, 2015 the Executive Director and senior grant staff met with the President of the New Jersey Council of Community Colleges and the County College representative to the HESAA Board to discuss how to better align the timing of the NJ STARS recruitment process to encourage more students to avail themselves of the program.

One way they planned to do this was to obtain class rank earlier, like they had been accidentally doing for the years leading up to the controversy.

“Reaching out to high schools earlier to obtain the class rank and making that information available earlier and on a rolling basis to the county colleges so they can commence recruitment efforts earlier,” said HESAA.

HESAA plans to raise student awareness of the NJ STARS program through their high school advisors.

“HESAA has made the NJ STARS program a featured topic during its annual high school counselor training institute. The high school counselor training institute occurs every FALL, takes place at multiple locations across the state and attracts approximately 900 counselors each year,” they said. “HESAA believes it is extremely important that high school counselors are equipped with the necessary knowledge so they can guide and advise students appropriately.”

But stepping up recruitment efforts still doesn’t help students like Valer, who said she thought she might be eligible for STARS but didn’t pay close attention because she planned on attending an out of state school. Valer said she didn’t officially know she was eligible for STARS until her community college orientation, and even then she needed someone to explain it to her.

“I didn't necessarily think I was in it but when I was in orientation someone pointed it out and I found out I was in it. I did have to apply but it wasn't a hard application and I was already eligible for it,” she said.

But like Valer, students who PLAN to get their education out of state, before they’ve received scholarships or financial aid to attend, don’t have any reason to care.

Brittany Heerwagen, a sophomore at Alvernia University in Reading, PA, is one such student who was eligible for NJ Stars, but chose to attend an out of state institution.

“Warren County didn’t offer the major I wanted,” she said. “I want to be an Occupational Therapist and because this profession requires a master’s, I wanted to be in the 5 years master’s program.” she said. “It was a great opportunity - free college, that’s amazing, but not for my major.”

Often the students who achieve the top 15% of their class are students who have their majors decided, or they want to pursue college beyond a bachelor’s, and for those students, 5-year programs just make more sense. Especially when the major’s course-load is accumulative, meaning that classes build upon each other and need to be taken in a specific order.

Heerwagen explained that while Warren County Community College had a program for assistants in her field...

“I wanna be the Occupational Therapist. It just made more sense to go to a 5 year program where there accredited. I save money, I save time. I guess there’s a benefit, I had to take certain classes at certain times.”

She continued to explain her accumulative schedule.

“Each of my semesters was already pre-made for me. I have to do 10 semesters; that’s 5 years. My major OT classes and my graduate classes I have to take THAT semester,” she said.

For some majors, attending 2 years of community college and then transferring is just not sensible.

“In order to get the master’s in OT I had two routes: Either do four years undergrad and two years masters or do two years at county and two years at another undergrad school and two years of a masters, and I’m not even guaranteed of getting into that master’s program,” said Heerwagen.

However, Heerwagen still attempted to avail herself of the STARS opportunity during the summer, when she was living at home. But the program is designed in a way that she was not eligible. Students in the STARS program have to maintain full-time, continuous enrollment in the community college they choose, so taking one class over the summer between her freshman and sophomore years made her ineligible to cash in on NJ STARS.

“It would be nice if the STARS program covered summer classes [for STARS-eligible students who attend a university],” she said. “But I understood.”

By trying to make more students aware of the NJ STARS program, it would seem that HESAA wants to continue enrolling students in the program. But tightening eligibility criteria has let a lot of students fall through the cracks, and it’s contributed to a national downward college enrollment trend. Opening up this criteria could reverse this trend, helping to net the bright students the program was originally created to preserve.

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