In June 2021, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law the New Jersey College Affordability Act, but with an alternative to a four-year degree increasingly becoming the only feasible post-secondary choice for some, the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants is now working to inform Garden State students and families of the incentives in this legislation.

"We're trying to keep New Jerseyans in New Jersey, and make New Jersey, which has one of the greatest education programs in the country, an attractive place for students to stay and go to school," Melissa Dardani, CPA, founder of Pennington-based MD Advisory and member of the NJCPA Student Loan Debt Task Force, said.

According to a 2019 survey of NJCPA's members, nearly 4 in 5 (79%) reported they had at least one client or client family member who put off a major life decision due to college debt.

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And the website Student Loan Hero puts the cumulative Garden State debt figure at about $50 billion for 1.3 million borrowers, an average of $33,000 per former student — meaning many have much more due.

"When you're already strapped with $50,000, $100,000, $200,000 sometimes of debt, it's an incredible obstacle to try and overcome," Dardani said, adding that having to pay down debt means waiting to take out a mortgage or launch an entrepreneurial effort.

Also, she said, incomes have not increased at as rapid a rate as the cost of going to college, meaning not only that parents are more burdened now than ever before, but also that graduates are starting their careers in a massive hole.

It's become a catch-22 kind of cycle.

"Starting salaries are just simply not high enough to support the costs that one must incur to be able to get the degree, and more and more you're seeing that the degree is a prerequisite to be able to get a job," Dardani said.

She added that sometimes, a college degree itself is all a prospective employer is looking for, not even one in the applicant's chosen line of work.

The New Jersey College Affordability Act provides aid through the NJ BEST and NJCLASS programs to households making up to $200,000 in income, which is a higher financial assistance threshold than usual.

Dardani said while chronically disadvantaged communities do remain jeopardized when it comes to college costs, this gives a glimmer of hope to them as well as others whose families may be on more solid footing.

"This is going to benefit not only economically underserved communities, as it should, but it's also going to, in some part, benefit those in the working class," she said.

Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com

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