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New Jersey hopes to keep college students in-state

Admissions strategist Steve Goodman helped two New Jersey students with their college applications this year. Both were accepted at Rutgers, the state's largest university. Neither will attend.

In this file photo from 2009, prospective students and their parents wait for the start of an information session at the new $7 million plus Rutgers University Visitor Center. (Tom Gralish / File)
In this file photo from 2009, prospective students and their parents wait for the start of an information session at the new $7 million plus Rutgers University Visitor Center. (Tom Gralish / File)Read more

Admissions strategist Steve Goodman helped two New Jersey students with their college applications this year.

Both were accepted at Rutgers, the state's largest university. Neither will attend.

Instead, Goodman said, they chose prestigious out-of-state research institutions: the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan.

The decisions by his clients fit a long-term trend, say Goodman and New Jersey higher-education authorities.

New Jersey exports more college students than any other state, and its colleges and universities attract relatively few students from elsewhere. Some higher-education advocates say they hope those facts will get attention from a task force appointed by Gov. Christie to make changes in a system he says has not kept pace with other states'.

Several factors influence New Jersey's student migration, experts say. The state is surrounded by cities - New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington - with high-caliber universities. Garden State public institutions have neither the prestige to attract the state's top students nor money to develop it.

What's more, experts say, New Jersey has an identity issue.

"There is a reverse-snobbery," said Cigus Vanni, a counselor at Cherry Hill High School West who is active in the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. "There really is this culture of, 'This is New Jersey. Who wants to be in New Jersey?' "

That bias is difficult to change, though New Jersey schools are on a par with nearby universities such as Villanova and Drexel, and Towson near Baltimore, Vanni said.

New Jersey saw a net loss of 31,464 college students in 2008, more than twice that of any other state, according the National Center for Education Statistics, which tracks enrollment in schools that grant federal financial aid, including county colleges. Of New Jersey residents who enrolled that year, 35 percent went out of state.

Pennsylvania saw a net gain of 13,328 students, with 16.8 percent of its residents attending out-of-state schools.

Some state leaders say they worry about the effect on the workforce, particularly in South Jersey, which has few four-year institutions.

"Our kids end up going to the Philadelphia schools," said Sen. Jim Whelan (D., Atlantic), vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "A lot of them don't come back."

Christie asked the five-member task force, led by former Gov. Tom Kean, to advise on the role of state oversight at taxpayer-supported schools, the mission of each school, and how to distribute aid.

Many school administrators say they would like the group to devise a more stable state-assistance plan. State funding for New Jersey's 12 four-year schools and 19 county colleges has been erratic, with cuts in three of the last six years.

The median debt-to-revenue ratio for the 11 New Jersey public institutions rated by Moody's Investors Service is triple the national median, according to a report released Monday by the credit rating agency.

High student demand has helped the schools maintain strong credit ratings as they expanded and updated campuses. But declining support - direct state assistance dropped 17 percent in the latest budget - and a new 4 percent cap on tuition increases will make it more difficult to pay that debt service, the report said.

The governor's task force should consider issuing bonds to help schools pay for capital projects, Whelan said. That would free up tuition revenue for operations and provide financing not subject to the whims of politicians.

The task force also should consider ways to enlarge the capacity of community colleges, he said.

Enrollment at the schools has grown 24 percent in five years, said Jacob Farbman, spokesman for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. In 2005, state support was 26 percent of the schools' average operating budgets. Today it is 18 percent, and the burden on tuition-payers has grown.

"Eventually, we'll price out the students," Farbman said.

Some county colleges are working with four-year schools to create bachelor's degree programs. Students can take Rowan University courses at Cumberland County College, for example. That has helped create revenue for both schools.

Despite enlarging its student body from the equivalent of less than 7,000 full-time students 10 years ago to 9,000 today, demand for entry to Rowan is high, said university president Donald Farish. The fall's 1,550 freshmen were accepted from 8,600 applicants.

The state is "rolling the dice" by not providing more opportunities for college-bound students to stick around, Farish said.

New Jersey "has long enjoyed a high standard of living," he said. "I think it believes, not practically, that that will continue regardless. And I'm saying I don't think so."

But New Jersey's migration problem cannot be solved simply with more desks, said Scott Jaschik, an editor of Inside Higher Ed, an online publication. Attracting students is not a guarantee they will settle here.

"Students follow the jobs," Jaschik said.

"When people say, 'If we do these things, we're sure of where the best-and-brightest will live,' I'd be very skeptical," he said.

Saagar Sethi, 17, a recent Cherry Hill West graduate, was offered a full ride at Rutgers. Instead he chose Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for its computer-science program. Even with financial aid and help from his parents, he likely will accrue $25,000 in loan debt per year.

"It was worth it to pay more to get a well-known school like Carnegie Mellon," he said.

Raising awareness of Rutgers' value is critical, said Philip Furmanski, the school's executive vice president for academic affairs. One way is to make it a more comprehensive research institution, he said.

In 2003, another state panel proposed that Rutgers merge with the state's other public research institutions - the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) and the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). A multibillion-dollar cost and concerns raised by Rutgers about the loss of its identity killed the plan.

The university would like to see a plan to give it control of UMDNJ's Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, Furmanski said.

The change would meld the medical school's resources in clinical studies and public health with Rutgers' engineering and pharmaceuticals programs, creating a center that served core state industries, including drug and medical-device manufacturing, he said.

"We need to help [those industries] find talent and to provide innovation so that they will stay in the state," Furmanski said.

Rutgers president Richard McCormick and NJIT president Robert Altenkirch have had informal discussions about taking over portions of UMDNJ, which has stabilized after a series of corruption scandals and allegations of mismanagement. A UMDNJ spokesman declined to comment about a possible consolidation.

The task force must present Christie with a report by Dec. 1. Kean would not comment on its progress except to say that members had begun their research. As for the proposed merger, he said: "Nothing is off the table."