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What Next For VHS ’13: College, Without Debt


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Laura Williams, who graduated with high honors, was an active member of the VHS music program. She also ran track.
Laura Williams, who graduated with high honors, was an active member of the VHS music program. She also ran track.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York says that 13% of the students who borrow for college graduate with more than $50,000 in debt; nearly 4% owe more than $100,000. Laura Williams is determined not to be in either group. She’s mapped out a plan to get a degree in four years with as little debt as possible, and she’s going to use a largely unknown community college program to do it.

You’ve probably read by now about students who go to a low-cost community college and then transfer to four-year school to finish their degree. According to a 2012 report by The College Board, enrollment at two-year schools jumped 45% between 1990 and 2010. Tuition and fees at the average two-year school total $3,131 per year, compared with $29,056 at the average private four-year school, or $39,518 once you add in room and board.

Williams, the Student Council president of the Class of 2013, is starting her college education at County College of Morris. But her two years there will cost nothing because Williams qualified for a little known state program called NJ STARS.

The program, which Williams and her parents uncovered on their own, is open to students who graduate in the top 15% of their high school class. NJ STARS students must take between 12 and 18 credits per semester, and they can be eligible for up to five semesters of studies. Students must attend the community college in their home county–unless that college does not offer classes in the student’s desired major. NJ STARS covers the tuition in full, but students must pay any fees on their own.

In going this route, Williams first had to overcome the stereotype that only students with bad grades or study habits go to community colleges. Randolph-based CCM has a broader range of courses than Essex County College (including the option to study abroad) and the highest graduation rate of New Jersey’s 19 community colleges. While she was accepted at both Rutgers and Hofstra, the appeal of graduating without a mountain of debt was just too strong.

UPDATE: On July 30, Essex County College denied Williams’ request for a so-called chargeback, which would have allowed her to use her NJ STARS scholarship at CCM. ECC maintains that its associates degree in liberal arts is the same as CCM’s international studies program, even though ECC offers none of the core courses and has only a third as many foreign languages to study. ECC, which failed to advise Williams of her state-mandated right to appeal its decision, also does not offer a study abroad program.

“Think about yourself and the situation your family is in,” says Williams to VHS underclassmen. “Then find a way to have the financial freedom to do what you want after graduation.”

Williams’ plan affords her a lot of freedom: As she attends CCM, she can continue to be a tutor of English as a second language because her adviser there is involved in ESL. Living at home, she’ll be able to raise another puppy for the Seeing Eye. Williams may be able to continue that commitment if she transfers to Rutgers in two years because it is involved with the Seeing Eye as well.

NJ STARS used to be an even better deal than it now is. Before changes enacted this past fall, students who went on to a four-year college were eligible for a $7,000 annual NJ STARS II scholarship; now it is just $2,500 per year. But NJ STARS II is now available at both private and public New Jersey colleges and Seton Hall has said that it will match the $2,500 state scholarship. Williams has received $3,000 in other scholarships already and is working on qualifying for more.

“Don’t get pulled into school bias and free t-shirts”, she tells those now looking at colleges. “Make your own decision. You are investing in yourself.”
Track photo copyright Fred Goode. Used by permission.

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Virginia Citrano
Virginia Citranohttps://myveronanj.com
Virginia Citrano grew up in Verona. She moved away to write and edit for The Wall Street Journal’s European edition, Institutional Investor, Crain’s New York Business and Forbes.com. Since returning to Verona, she has volunteered for school, civic and religious groups, served nine years on the Verona Environmental Commission and is now part of Sustainable Verona. She co-founded MyVeronaNJ in 2009. You can reach Virginia at [email protected]


  1. Laura has a bright future ahead. I had the pleasure of getting to know her a bit when she volunteered to help a student of mine. She is smart and mature; but more importantly, she is kind and uses her time to give back. Laura is a wonderful role model and I wish her all the best!!

  2. Thanks for doing this story – hopefully, it will serve other students as well. Laura is an awesome person & I am sure she will do very well. What a thoughtful, great choice!
    The fact that Laura & her family uncovered this program on their own is, however, troubling because the guidance office and its counselors (who are likely overloaded) should know about such programs and many other non-traditional routes available to students. Unfortunately, we also found such routes were not supported and encouraged, and had to do a lot of our own “legwork” as well.


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