Free community college tuition about to kick off in New Jersey

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy made a campaign promise to make free community college a reality. Beginning in January, a piece of that promise will begin.

Free tuition will be offered at 12 community colleges across the state, including at Passaic Community College in Paterson.

"We have an opportunity this spring to get people into school who never thought it would be possible," said PCC President Dr. Steven Rose. "This is a big deal for Paterson."

Paterson is one of the poorest communities in New Jersey. About 40 percent of the population lives in poverty. Only 1 in 10 residents have some college education or a degree.

"Yeah, it's hard sometimes," said Raena Cooley, a mom of three who is currently working her way through college.

She's taking classes at PCC and hopes to earn a degree in education so she can become a teacher.

Right now, she’s working in a food pantry warehouse through a jobs program offered by CUMAC, a community organization that helps people out of poverty. Outside the food pantry Tuesday, there was a line out the door.

"Ending hunger has nothing to do with giving people food," said CUMAC Executive Director Mark Dinglasan. "It’s about empowering people and providing wrap-around services that can help break cycles of poverty."

"The pathway out of poverty is with education," said Paterson's economic development director Michael Powell.

Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh and PCC leadership encouraged anyone to enroll.

To get free tuition — applicants must earn a gross income of $45,000 or less. And you must fill out a financial aid form - to see if you qualify for federal aid first. Anything not covered by federal aid, will then be covered by this new state grant for $25 million.

This free tuition opportunity is a pilot program so it is only guaranteed to last though the spring semester. After that the legislature must vote to renew it.

"We’re fairly confident that if this works the way we think it’s going to work, it’s going to be a no-brainer," said Rose.

For Raena Cooley - it could mean the launch of her career and a great example for her three kids.

"They get to see their mom graduate and do something positive and hopefully influence them to do the same," she said.