New Jersey officials on Tuesday released a new vision for higher education in the state that will aim to improve affordability and access, and try to persuade more students to stay in the Garden State for college.
“I’m tired of New Jersey’s leading export being college-bound high school seniors,” Gov. Phil Murphy said during a news conference at Rutgers-Newark, where he was joined by college presidents and state higher education officials.
Touted as a “student bill of rights,” the plan in broad outlines calls for greater transparency in communicating what college actually costs from the time students enter through their final student loan payment.
New Jersey is the fourth most expensive state in which to obtain a college degree, noted Secretary of Education Zakiya Smith Ellis. Colleges need to address that, she said.
“All the student aid in the world won’t be enough if the underlying tuition is too high,” she said at the press conference.
The plan, developed with input from hundreds of students, faculty, and staff at campuses across the state, encompasses all of New Jersey’s 78 public and private two- and four-year colleges, which enrolled 532,772 in 2017-18.
Five task-force committees over the next nine months will work on specific proposals to help the state reach its goal of having 65 percent of adult residents with a college degree or similar credential by 2025, up from the current 51 percent. The state also will aim to reduce achievement gaps among racial groups and geographic areas.
Numbers of residents with college degrees differ by county. Locally, Camden County has the lowest percentage, 41 percent, compared with Burlington County with 49 percent and Gloucester with 43 percent, according to the state plan.
The plan brought immediate praise from college presidents.
“Any time we’re all looking at the process from the same lens, there’s a benefit,” said Donald Borden, president of Camden County College. “When there’s a cohesive idea as to where we want to go, I think there’s a benefit.”
Most states have a higher education plan of some kind, said Robert E. Anderson, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
“What often varies," he said, “is the degree of specificity and how outcomes will be measured. I tend to view more specific plans as having greater potential to be effective. A focus on educational quality, closing equity gaps, and workforce outcomes are key elements of current plans.”
Pennsylvania has one, though it’s from 2005, and some higher education officials in recent years have cited the need for better coordination among the state’s private and public colleges.
“The higher education ecosystem in this state is broken — unsustainable in its current form,” Daniel Greenstein, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, said in a recent address. “Left unattended to, it will fail us — all of us, all of Pennsylvania.”
New Jersey officials say their plan is distinguished in its focus on students, even calling for students to have a role in the decision-making on policies that affect them. They also say they will report progress toward goals annually, including degree attainment and transfer rates.
The plan doesn’t propose specific new funding, but Murphy in his budget address has proposed new money for higher education, including expanding his free community college program.
“Each year, we would hope our budget decisions and policy decisions are using this plan as a guide,” said Ellis.
The plan also calls for more programs that will give students access to college, such as dual enrollment classes. And once students get on campus full-time, they need more internship, co-op and apprenticeship opportunities, the plan states.
Borden, who will co-chair a task force committee on early access, said part of the goal will be to keep more students in New Jersey for college. If they have experiences with New Jersey colleges early on, said Borden, a former school superintendent, they are more likely to stay.
For at least the last five years, maybe longer, New Jersey has been one of the nation’s top exporters of college students, and it doesn’t draw nearly as many from other states to fill the gap.
In fall 2016, 31,561 first-time degree- or certificate-seeking high school graduates left New Jersey for four-year colleges, and only 4,299 migrated in from other states, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s a difference of 27,262, the largest net loss in the nation that year.
Pennsylvania, a much larger state with more colleges, saw 16,095 home-grown students leave, but took in 31,618, for the largest net gain of any state.
Making sure students stay in college and graduate will be a focus of one of the task force committees, which Stockton University president Harvey Kesselman will co-chair. The group will look at successful programs at campuses around the country and how they can be duplicated at more colleges.