The success of an innovative pilot program in New Jersey that helps to bridge equity gaps in higher education and fuel economic and workforce growth in high-need industries such as health care, clean energy, and information technology is leading to renewed funding.

Known as the New Jersey Pay It Forward (NJ PIF) Program, the project was created as a partnership between the state, the New Jersey CEO Council, and Social Finance, a national nonprofit that uses private investments to improve social and environmental outcomes.

Utilizing $12.5 million annually, including state and corporate contributions, the program provides comprehensive support to diverse groups of students pursuing higher education or career training, primarily in the form of zero-interest, no-fee loans that cover tuition as well as academic and lab fees. NJ PIF participants also receive a monthly living stipend of $375 or $500, depending on full- or part-time enrollment status, and have access to an emergency aid fund and mental health counseling services, none which are subject to repayment.

Through its associate degree nursing program, Hudson County Community College (HCCC) is one of three institutions piloting the initiative.

“The [program’s] stipend and emergency funds helped me focus on my classes and worry less,” says Eunice Rivera, a 2023 HCCC nursing graduate and NJ PIF participant. “The no-interest loan helps me stay in the here and now, instead of worrying too much about compounding interest that I would have to pay in the future.”

The loan repayment terms are borrower friendly. Participants are only required to repay if their earned income exceeds the specified threshold of $12,000 per year, above 150 percent of the annual federal poverty level for their household size. For those who meet the threshold, repayments are capped at 10 percent of discretionary income. In addition to having no interest or extraneous fees, loan balances in good standing that remain five years after graduation are forgiven in full. Any repaid funds are recycled into the program and used to finance future students.

The goal of the program is to bolster economic and educational mobility for historically underserved individuals and communities. Those groups include veterans, formerly incarcerated individuals, people with incomes less than $65,000, and those who have recently received public assistance.

“In order to create a stronger and fairer New Jersey, we must ensure that there are equitable opportunities for all to obtain high-quality credentials and secure economic stability,” Brian K. Bridges, PhD, New Jersey’s secretary of higher education, said during the program’s initial launch. “Especially as we recover from the pandemic, the Pay It Forward Program allows individuals interested in acquiring industry-valued training opportunities to pursue upward economic mobility for themselves and their families without the burden of high-interest, overly burdensome student loans.”

NJ PIF participating institutions and programs include HCCC’s nursing program, the cybersecurity professional boot camp at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Camden County College’s HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) and welding courses.

Since NJ PIF began in 2022, more than 100 students have participated, including 19 HCCC nursing graduates who were the first NJ PIF students to complete their degrees. Given this success, Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed an additional $2.5 million in state funding for 2024.

“We are incredibly proud of our first Pay It Forward Program nursing graduates,” says HCCC President Christopher Reber, PhD. “A college degree is the great equalizer on the path to a sustainable career and enjoyable life. It provides the means to secure one’s family and to help our community thrive.”●

This article was published in our January/February 2024 issue.

Above: Hudson County Community College 2023 graduates celebrate the completion of their nursing degree through the New Jersey Pay It Forward Program.