Guest Commentator:  Phoebe A. Haddon, Chancellor, Rutgers University–Camden

What economic issues will create opportunities for our region’s education and talent retention in 2017?

For many high school students and their families, choosing a college means picking the right school that offers the best chance to succeed upon graduation.

Increasingly, families also must weigh the benefits of a college degree with the persistent financial burdens that they will continue to carry with them long after they graduate. This debt hurts economic development for decades at every level.

At Rutgers University–Camden, we have created an innovative financial support program for working families that dramatically reduces tuition or eliminates it altogether.

Launched in October 2015, the Bridging the Gap program at Rutgers–Camden is demonstrating how public universities can fulfill their commitment to access and affordability. A first of its kind among New Jersey’s four-year colleges and universities, the initiative has resulted in 58% more first-year undergraduate students; 48% more first-year, first-generation students; 85% more first-year African-American undergraduate students; and 64% more first-year Hispanic undergraduate students.

Bridging the Gap goes to the heart of the state’s focused efforts to make college more affordable. In February 2015, sponsored by New Jersey Sens. Stephen Sweeney and Sandra Cunningham, the College Affordability Study Commission was created by state law to find ways to reduce these costs.

Rutgers–Camden’s Bridging the Gap is currently the only initiative that helps New Jersey families realize immediate savings on college expenses from day one, and not deferred until later in their college careers. It requires participating students to enroll full-time and to complete their Rutgers–Camden degrees within four years.

The program closes the gap between federal and state sources of financial support and the balance of tuition and the general campus fee. Families with an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $60,000 or less receive a grant covering all of their tuition and the general campus fee not already covered by federal Pell Grants and/or state-funded Tuition Aid Grants.

Families with an AGI of $60,001 to $80,000 receive a grant covering 75 percent, and families with an AGI of $80,001 to $100,000 receive a grant covering 50 percent, of their remaining tuition and general campus fee.

The program is offered exclusively to New Jersey residents who will be new first-year undergraduate students enrolling full-time in degree programs on the Rutgers–