Come next spring, thousands of New Jersey students could be going to college for free. That is, if their community college is among the ones chosen for a pilot program launched by Gov. Murphy.

On Tuesday, the state invited its 19 community colleges to apply for the Community College Innovation Challenge, a program aimed at making higher education more accessible and affordable.

The program will cover tuition and fees at chosen schools for students with an adjusted gross income of $45,000 or less and who take six or more credits during the spring 2019 semester.

Murphy, a Democrat, championed free community college during his campaign. The 2019 fiscal year state budget includes funding for the first phase of his initiative, including up to $20 million for grant awards to go directly to student accounts, according to a release.

The initiative is an "important step in improving affordability for thousands" of students, according to Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis.

"All too often, the cost of college prevents students from earning the post-secondary credentials they need to boost their careers," Ellis said.

Aaron R. Fichtner, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, said the governor's initial investment is part of a larger effort to "make sure more people go to college."

"We applaud Gov. Murphy's vision," Fichtner said. "It's very exciting and a very important step forward. … This initial investment really will open up doors of opportunity for other people."

Fichtner said about 20 other states also are working to reduce community college costs.

The initial cluster of colleges whose students will be eligible will be selected by the secretary of higher education and the state's Higher Education Student Assistance Authority. Colleges must apply by Aug. 31.

Community college tuition and fees in New Jersey on average cost just under $7,000 a year.

Rutgers University-Camden and other four-year colleges in the state offer similar programs for incoming students, providing free or reduced tuition depending on a family's income.

Since the Rutgers-Camden program Bridging the Gap had its first class in fall 2016, the university has had an increase in the number of residents who choose to stay in state for school.