In an enlightened move, New Jersey is offering free community college to hundreds of low- and moderate-income students. It is joining other forward-thinking states such as Oregon and California which recognize that a high school diploma just isn't enough for a person to find a decent-paying, stable job.

Starting next spring, community colleges will award grants to fill in gaps in student financial aid. To qualify, students' families must earn less than $45,000 and the students must take at least six credits a semester.

Community college in New Jersey already is a bargain at an average cost of less than $7,000 a year for tuition and fees, according to the state Commission on Higher Education.  The national average is $9,000, according to the Department of Education. And, it's still lower than tuition at four-year schools, which is partly why more prospective students are considering two-year schools and then transferring into four-year schools.

Right now, the fledgling program can help hundreds of students. But for it to really have impact, it should expand to benefit more students; the state promises it will. This is a worthwhile taxpayer investment because the more educated the populace, the wealthier the state.

But what about the other side of the equation, cutting into the high costs of higher education which drives up student debt?   This is a national problem. Since 1997, average college costs have tripled, rising from $3,168 just for tuition and fees to $10,691 in 2017.  Students are shouldering a staggering $1.5 trillion in debt.

Driving down costs will require major shifts in the management of higher education, but we shouldn't overlook simple ideas. For example, in 2002, retired George Washington University president Stephen Trachtenberg suggested running the school year-round. Proponents argued that expensive facilities were largely fallow in the summer and that the university could not only educate more students but that industrious students could get out of schools in three years. The staff shot it down, but it's still a good idea; so is holding more classes on Fridays and weekends. Other ideas include cutting administrative costs and de-emphasizing the "publish or perish" mentality which keeps professors out of classrooms to work on research projects.

Enacting cost-cutting ideas takes a watchdog, and in New Jersey, that's the Legislature. Members should grill public college presidents about how they will save money and pass the savings onto students.

Students in the worst shape are those who dropped out because they couldn't afford tuition but still have loans to pay. In a landmark study, Sara Goldrick-Rab  followed 3,000 students in Wisconsin's public colleges and found that half dropped out because they didn't have enough money.

Now at Temple University, Goldrick-Rab is highlighting students who are so strapped, they can't even afford to eat.

College should be a gateway to economic security — not lifelong debt. While New Jersey is blazing a trail for others to follow, it should also pursue innovations that lower student costs at all its colleges.