Essex County College Won’t Honor VHS Grad’s Scholarship

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Graduation cap and textbooksEssex County College is preventing a Verona High School graduate from using the state scholarship she received for her college education as she intended.

Laura Williams, VHS 2013, had qualified for a state program called NJ STARS. It allows students who graduate in the top 15% of their class to attend a county college for two years for free (Williams was number 18 out of a class of 143 students; the cut off for the top 15% was number 22.) Students are told they must enroll in their home county college unless it does not offer what they want to study. In that case, NJ STARS lets the student attend a county college elsewhere in state and that college can bill the home-county institution for its in-county tuition rate, a process known as a “chargeback”.

At least that’s what’s supposed to happen. But on July 30, ECC declined Williams’ request for a chargeback from County College of Morris. Willams would either have to use her NJ STARS scholarship at ECC or pay out-of-county tuition at Morris from her own pocket.

NJ STARS has offered free tuition to 30,000 students since its inception in 2004. But the law that created the program sets rules for honoring study elsewhere that are different from those in the law that governs chargebacks, and Williams is now caught between the two.

The chargebacks provision, approved by state legislators in November 2003, says a student can get a chargeback if his home college does not offer “the particular course or program of study” the student wants. The NJ STARS law, enacted in 2004, says a student can attend another school at the in-county rate if his home college does not offer “the curriculum” that the student chooses. Curriculum was not defined in the NJ STARS law (or its 2012 update, which also used the term), but dictionaries generally define the word to mean a series of courses.

Laura Williams ran track at VHS.
Laura Williams ran track at VHS.

Williams intends to major in international studies. County College of Morris offers a series of courses as part of an associate of arts degree in international studies. As part of the 63-credit program, it mandates classes in intercultural communication and cultural geography, and 12 credits of a foreign language. Neither class is offered at ECC, which does not have an international studies degree. Morris offers multiple levels of Mandarin, French, Spanish, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian and Latin. Morris also has a study abroad option, which Williams intended to use.

ECC, however, has decided that Williams is a liberal arts major: It offers associate of arts liberal arts programs in Communications, Journalism, Spanish and Africana studies. Only the Spanish degree has a foreign language component. In addition to Spanish, ECC offers only two levels each of Arabic, French and Italian. Verona students have attended CCM about twice as often as ECC in recent years: 30 students went to CCM from 2010 to 2012, compared with 14 for ECC.

Essex County College declined to comment on its denial of the chargeback, citing student privacy. Spokesmen from NJ STARS and the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, which oversees NJ STARS, said their organizations side with ECC. Essex County College and NJ STARS also declined to comment on the fact that ECC did not, as required by law, apprise Williams of her right to appeal the chargeback denial. Under state law, she should have had 10 days to make that appeal.

Though they were unaware of the appeal procedure, Williams’ parents, Doug and Marjorie Williams, did contact Leonard Luciano, the Essex County freeholder who represents Verona, for assistance. He e-mailed Joyce Wilson Harley, ECC’s executive director of administrative services, and forwarded her response to the family. “ECC has a Liberal Arts degree program,” Harley wrote. “We offer the Modern Language courses that are required of the Liberal Arts degree. Chinese is not one of those required languages.”

But Harley’s e-mail raises the possibility that economics, not education, may have a role in the decision. “Please note that chargebacks are paid by the County of Essex,” she wrote Luciano. “We are very mindful of the County’s budget and are careful to manage that part of it wisely.”

Williams has pulled together some funds to attend Morris this year. And she is sanguine about what happened. “The bureaucracies we are forced to deal with today are always going to make the process to get what we need the most difficult and frustrating process ever,” she says. “We just have to deal with it the best we can. There are alternative options out there, we just need to have the passion to seek them out. Life has a funny way of working everything out in the end.”

Photo of Laura Williams 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].

5 COMMENTS

  1. Laura has an amazingly positive attitude in the midst of such a disgraceful situation. Last year she was an invited speaker on opening day for Verona faculty and staff. Laura has excelled in not only academics but in charitable works, equestrian competitions, Chinese Dance and Verona’s band & track. She is a Star in every sense of the word.

  2. Thanks for the information. I will be writing to Joseph DiVincenzo and urge others to do the same. This is not the way we should treat our STAR Scholars.

  3. I am quite disappointed in ECC’s response to Laura’s predicament! I have known Laura most of her life and she is an amazing young woman! NJSTARS should be ashamed for misleading qualified students if the county colleges don’t stand by what was agreed to with the program.
    Since Laura is a very bright and determined person, I have no doubt that she will be able to manage this “hurdle” and succeed beautifully!!
    All the best Laura!!

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