TRENTON, NJ—The College Affordability Commission, which was created by the New Jersey government in February, has begun assembling members to look into the issue of college affordability.
The only current student on the ten-member commission will be Rutgers-Newark's Giancarlo Tello, an activist who hails from the Essex county town of Belleville.
"Super exited and honored to annouced that NJ Assembly Speaker Vincent Pierto has appointed me to New Jersey's College Affordability Student Commission," Tello wrote on his Facebook.
Tello has been active with groups like New Jersey United Students, the Rutgers University Tuition Equity Coalition, and the New Jersey DREAM Act Coalition.
Tello, an undocumented immigrant from Peru, had originally attended community college, unable to seek a four-year university education due to this lack of a social security number.
When he did enroll at Rutgers-Newark, Tello was required to pay the international student rate since he could not prove his residency, and could only afford three credits per semester.
Even then, Tello was required to pay the out-of-state rate of $2,700.
At a February 2013 Rutgers student government meeting with Rutgers President Bob Barchi, Tello presented his story and asked Barchi to support state legislation known as the NJ DREAM Act, which would allow certain undocumented students to qualify for in-state tution rates.
It was there at Tello and President Barchi publicly clashed, with Barchi stating that the issue of undocumented students getting in-state tuition and financial aid should ultimately be up to federal, not state action.
State-level action, Barchi maintained, would lead to undesirable consequences. That bill ended up passing and being signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie in December 2013.
“I’m asking President Barchi to treat me with the dignity and respect of a human being, a fellow New Jerseyan who’s lived here almost all his life,” Tello told The Daily Targum.
Barchi was also appointed to the College Affordability Commission, making Rutgers the only school to hold more than one seat in the commission.
"I'm excited to be able discuss the issues of undocumented students at Rutgers University with him on a regular basis," Tello told New Brunswick Today.
In the Rutgers University Tuition Equity Coalition, Tello had been an advocate for the NJ Dream Act, and first met the man who appointed him the the commission, NJ Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.
Prieto was tasked with nominating two members of the public, and the president of a private university.
Prieto nominated Caldwell College President Dr. Nancy Blattner, as well as Jonathan Boguchwal of Hoboken and Donald C. Doran of Island Heights. Boguchwal is the Chief of Staff to Essex County Senator Richard Codey.
Governor Christie was tasked with appointing two members, including the president of a public research university and the president of a state college. He picked Barchi and Ramapo College President Peter P. Mercer.
Senate President Steve Sweeney appointed the final four members to the commission: the president of a county college, a faculty member from a public college. and a two additional members of the public.
Sweeney appointed Rowan University President Ali Houshmand, Gloucester County College President Frederick Keating, Deputy Research Director of the Senate Republican Office John Gorman, and Richard Stockton College Professor Timothy Haresign.
Ultimately, the bill creating the College Affordability Commission is part of a package of 20 bills introduced by the NJ Senate and Assembly, several of which will be examined by the commission.
One of the more notable alternative tuition options on the table is the so-called "pay it foward" tuition payment plan, which would eliminate tuition and instead allow students to pay back the government as a percentage of their income.
The commission would also examine the Affordable Degree Pilot Program, the Accelerated Degree Pilot Program, possible improvements to NJBEST and NJCLASS loans.
The Affordable Degree Pilot Program would set up a partnership between certain county colleges and four-year universities, allowing students to complete the first two years at the county college and finish their bachelor's degree at a four-year school.
Such a partnership already exists between Gloucester County College and Rowan University.
An accelerated degree program would create a shorter, condensed curriculum for high-performing high school students to complete a medical, graduate-level science or engineering degree.
"Our intent is to take a deliberative approach to making college more affordable and accessible in New Jersey but to ensure that we do not take action that will be counterproductive to our goal," Senate Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Sandra Cunningham told NJ Spotlight.
In recent years, the New Jersey College Loans to Assist State Students (NJCLASS) program had come under fire for its lack of transparency, oversight and consumer friendliness.
"This loan company forces young, unsuspecting recent college graduates into poverty ad default. They outright REFUSE to work with a borrower," a source told New Brunswick Today.
Currently, a petition on change.org calls on NJCLASS to "offer rehabilitation loans to defaulted borrowers who have defaulted on their NJCLASS loans."
The authors of the petition claim that despite a state law that requires the Higher Education Assistance Authority (HESAA) to allow NJCLASS borrowers to default on their loans and request rehabilitation, HESAA has stated that it cannot actually rehabilitate loans.
"HESAA claims they cannot rehabilitate NJCLASS loans as they are "not authorized by either statute, or the bond indentures that fund NJCLASS loans at this time," the petition reads.