College affordability and access — a topic of national conversation — drove change in higher education in New Jersey last year, including academic changes, facilities expansions, and institutional partnerships.

"The affordability issue has come to the forefront more vigorously than ever, probably because of the campaigning going on," said Pamela J. Hersh, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities. "It's been a topic of great conversation."

At the state level, that conversation is formally taking place as part of a Legislature-created College Affordability Study Commission, chaired by Frederick Keating, president of Gloucester County's community college, Rowan College at Gloucester County.

That panel's last public hearing is scheduled for Jan. 20 at Rowan University in Glassboro. The commission is set to issue recommendations this year.

Public colleges and universities continued to ramp up fund-raising in 2015, a response, in part, to declining state funding and pushback on annual tuition increases.

The "Our Rutgers, Our Future" campaign raised $1.37 billion and its endowment broke the $1 billion mark for the first time.

An anonymous donor gave $20 million to Montclair State University — the school's largest donation ever.

Rowan University received several major donations in recent years from its benefactor, Henry M. Rowan, who died Dec. 9. Donations to Stockton University have increased more than 20 percent so far this school year.

"Fund-raising is one of the ways public institutions now are actively engaged, and it certainly is one of the major requirements of any president," said Stockton University president Harvey Kesselman, who said he spends five or six nights a week fund-raising.

"It's not something that will end," he said. "This is now going to be part of the public-institution landscape."

Phoebe A. Haddon, chancellor of Rutgers-Camden, also has said her school needs increased support from private donors.

Rutgers-Camden, which has long prided itself on its commitment to diversity and accessibility, last year announced a new "Bridging the Gap" program that eliminates or reduces tuition costs for the neediest students. Rutgers-Newark recently announced a similar program.

"That's going to have a tremendous impact on providing access in the future," Haddon said.

Across the state, construction on campuses continued, much of it backed by $1.3 billion in state funding distributed in 2013.

Some state-funded buildings opened last year, including a Writers House at Rutgers-Camden. Others are scheduled to open this year, including engineering and business buildings at Rowan University, and an alumni house at Rutgers-Camden.

The state in November announced a second round of funding, totaling $180 million. Colleges are expected to submit their wish lists soon for that funding, even as more of the 176 original projects wrap up.

Rowan College at Burlington County plans a new building at its popular Mount Laurel campus, where the community college is shifting operations after deciding to close its longtime main campus in Pemberton. Over the course of the 2016-17 school year, classes will be moved to Mount Laurel.

Physical changes weren't the only ones underway last year at Burlington County's community college.

Known at the start of the year as Burlington County College, the school picked a new president — Paul Drayton Jr., the county administrator and former CEO of the Delaware River Port Authority — who soon announced the campus changes, an administrative restructuring, and an agreement with Rowan University.

So Burlington County College became Rowan College at Burlington County, following in the footsteps of Rowan College at Gloucester County (neé Gloucester County College).

Those two partnerships mean students at the Gloucester and Burlington community colleges are guaranteed transfer admission to Rowan University, granted they meet minimum grade-point average requirements.

Rowan University, which has set aggressive expansion goals, continued to build its online schooling, create new graduate programs, and create new pathways to degrees.

This fall, Rowan University will open a three-year bachelor's degree program that has students taking classes on campus year-round. Rowan also created a six-year dual-degree program with Widener University Delaware Law School that would allow students to skip the fourth undergraduate year and transfer to the law school.

"I need to find any means possible to provide education that is affordable, especially for our kind of people," said Ali A. Houshmand, president of Rowan University. "We are a regional institution, and we really are surrounded by a large number of blue-collar population, and they can't afford the cost of education."

Community colleges also enhanced paths to degrees, with many rolling out changes meant to improve advising, developmental education, retention of students, and, ultimately, graduation and transfer rates.

"Colleges really look at starting with the end in mind for students who walk in the door, and making the choices easier for the students," said Jake Farbman, spokesman for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.

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