By Darryl Greer

New Jersey higher education faces challenges in making college more affordable and accessible to a changing population. People value our colleges but want to be sure their investment pays off in careers of the future.

Change is sweeping over how college education is delivered, paid for, and held accountable. A different type of collective engagement, vision, and leadership is needed if higher education is to fulfill its promise for our citizens.

New Jersey's public colleges, with significant policy autonomy, are nimble enough to succeed on this agenda.

The big opportunity for higher education is to build new models for finance, affordability, learning technology, and governance, demonstrating value to serve long-term public needs. In partnership with others, colleges must provide educational opportunity for the emerging New Jersey population.

The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey is positively engaged on these issues in a number of ways, including helping to lead a statewide team on new assessment tools measuring school completion and college readiness, and advising a national commission on college governance accountability.

Colleges must resolve issues with revenue constraints and public frustration with college affordability and growing loan debt. Businesses and government are pressing for better workforce preparation and improved college completion rates.

Following a decade of growth in college-bound high school graduates, peaking in 2008 at about 110,000 students annually, New Jersey will lose about 10 percent of its high school graduating class by 2020.

This means fewer students headed to college in New Jersey, already first in the nation in net loss of talented students going to college out of state. A bigger percentage of students aspiring to attend college will be racial and ethnic minorities and new immigrants, who traditionally have greater educational and financial needs.

These important issues were at the heart of the recent meeting of the Higher Education Strategic Information and Governance (HESIG) Council at Stockton College. HESIG assembled, for the second year, some of the nation's top college policy analysts and New Jersey higher-education leaders under the theme "Finding Solutions, Building Public Trust in an Era of Change."

Consistently, public opinion polling, including that of the Stockton Polling Institute, indicates that citizens strongly aspire to go to college, and they believe that it is worth the investment and very important to success. Yet citizens are stressed about college costs and being able to complete their education.

Meeting the challenge of college affordability and accountability requires major changes in colleges' traditional business, production, and governance models. Success will come by partnering with schools, business, labor, government, and citizens.

The Stockton HESIG Council recommendations emphasize defining college value and improving governance accountability:

On college value:

Define value in a manner that relates directly to the educational needs and aspirations of students served, especially recognizing the rapidly changing college-bound population.

Partner closely with K-12 policymakers and business leaders on emerging national standards for core curriculum assessment on school completion and college readiness.

Make sure that college value is tied explicitly to measurable, mission-related educational outcomes, and especially to degree completion and affordability.

Communicate the educational and economic value of college in a manner that is understandable and transparent about cost, and emphasizes public benefits.

On governance reform:

Engage trustees on strategic trends, and emphasize policy reform needed to achieve long-term goals.

Expand partnerships that engage new business approaches and educational delivery technology, and help boards understand their changing role and scope of authority.

Actively work with the state to strengthen the composition of boards, trustee education and self-evaluation, the trustee appointment process, and appointment of highly qualified citizens to new affiliated organizations.

During 2013-14, HESIG will hold two regional "roundtables" of college and policy leaders; conduct a second Stockton scientific poll on accountability issues; and continue analyses of "best practices" to promote positive college reforms.

The change needed is within reach. With leadership, and the partnership of many, New Jersey can fulfill the promise of college opportunity in the Garden State.

Darryl G. Greer is senior fellow for the Higher Education Strategic Information and Governance Council at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. HESIG is affiliated with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy. For more information, visit www.stockton.edu/hughescenter/hesig.