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Why are so many high school students leaving New Jersey?

New Jersey consistently has been one of the nation's highest exporters of college students to other states, and it doesn't take in near as many in return. Legislators want to know why.

Robert Kwiatkowski, Nadya Lopez, and Jake Cedar, rising seniors at Haddonfield Memorial High School, discuss where they are considering going to college. Robert wants to stay in New Jersey. Nadya and Jake hope to leave.
Robert Kwiatkowski, Nadya Lopez, and Jake Cedar, rising seniors at Haddonfield Memorial High School, discuss where they are considering going to college. Robert wants to stay in New Jersey. Nadya and Jake hope to leave.Read moreJessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

Jake Cedar wants to go to a prestigious college and isn't finding what he's looking for in his home state of New Jersey.

The rising senior at Haddonfield Memorial High School is more interested in universities outside the Garden State, including Duke in North Carolina, American in Washington, Cornell in New York, Case Western Reserve in Ohio, and closer to home, the University of Pennsylvania.

Nothing personal, New Jersey.

"The goal isn't to leave New Jersey," explained Cedar, 17. "I don't know what it is. It might just be because everyone else does it."

Cedar has a point.

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, yet 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.

By contrast, 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.

The topic has been debated and discussed frequently in recent years. The New Jersey Business and Industry Association sees it as a negative return for state taxpayers who invest more than $20,000 per pupil annually for K-12 education. The group issued a report on the "outmigration" of millenials and earlier this year, a closer look at the loss of college students.

"When we learned about these startling numbers we said, 'Time out.' This is our future workforce and we need to be concerned," said Michele Siekerka, NJBIA chief executive officer.

Legislators want answers, too. The state Senate last month unanimously passed legislation to direct the secretary of education to conduct a study on the loss of students; it now rests with the Legislature's Higher Education Committee.

"A lot of times when these students leave, they don't return," said Brad Schnure, director of communications for the Senate Republicans. "We want to bring them back home. We want them to stay here."

Schnure said senators hoped to explore a number of questions: Are New Jersey's colleges too expensive? Are they not offering the right programs? Or do students just not know what's available in their backyard? How much does New Jersey's relatively small geographic area and students' desire to see other places play a role?

Is it that a mecca of private and public colleges, many of them prestigious, lie right across the Ben Franklin Bridge, while many others are nearby in Maryland, Washington, and New York? Is it that the state doesn't have any mega city comparable to New York, Philadelphia, or Washington to lure college-age students?

Theories abound: New Jersey has a lot of high-achieving high school students who attract interest from many colleges, and it's a high-income state with families who can afford to pay more expensive out-of-state tuition.

Siekerka pointed out that New Jersey, according to 2017 College Board figures, is the fourth-most expensive in the nation for a four-year public education. (Pennsylvania is third.) That could be causing some of the exodus, she said.

But she also sees a marketing problem.

"We don't have a brand for higher education in New Jersey," she said. "We don't have one united public system."

The state certainly has some prestigious contenders. It is home to Princeton, a highly selective Ivy League university that this year accepted only 5.5 percent of applicants. Its flagship state university, Rutgers, has multiple campuses and an honors college. In addition, there are 10 other public universities, including Rowan at Gloucester County, and a network of 14 private colleges.

Pennsylvania, by comparison, has 14 state universities, and four state-related schools — Pennsylvania State University, Temple, the University of Pittsburgh, and Lincoln. In addition, there are dozens of private colleges, including such academic elites as Swarthmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Lehigh, and Bucknell.

New Jersey colleges have tried in recent years to address affordability, including Rutgers-Camden's Bridging the Gap program, which offers tuition relief to lower- and middle-income families. It seems to be helping, said Mike Sepanic, Rutgers-Camden spokesperson, noting that enrollment has grown for three years to 7,800 expected this fall.

Universities in neighboring states see New Jersey as prime recruiting ground.

"It's our most important out-of-state market," said Clark Brigger, who oversees undergraduate admissions at Penn State. "The competition is fierce."

His university receives about 7,000 applications annually from New Jersey, roughly 8 percent of the overall applicants. About 4,000 Penn State students, or roughly 5 percent of undergraduates, hail from New Jersey, he said. That's even though New Jersey residents attending the University Park campus pay about $33,000 annually in tuition and fees — more than double the $15,000 tab they would have faced if they had gone to Rutgers-New Brunswick in their home state.

Penn State draws more of its students from out of state than Rutgers – 30 percent compared to 17 percent at Rutgers.

Data from the Chronicle of Higher Education and NJ Advance Media show that the University of Delaware, Penn State, Drexel, Villanova, Temple, St. Joseph's, and Lehigh were among the most popular 10 universities with New Jersey students who chose to go out of state in 2014-15. (The three others were the University of Maryland College Park, New York University, and Syracuse.)

Siekerka's association says the state needs to aggressively promote and market the benefits of staying in New Jersey, addressing costs and reducing the need for remedial education.

At Haddonfield, which is about 10 minutes from Philadelphia, just more than 20 percent of the class of 2018 will attend a New Jersey college. More than 28 percent plan to attend Pennsylvania colleges, school statistics show.

But those numbers don't tell the whole story.

A quarter of the graduating class applied to Rutgers-New Brunswick; seven will attend, school counselor Jeff Holman said. Forty applied to Rowan; 13 will attend; 11 to Rutgers-Camden, with two going; and 27 to the College of New Jersey, with six enrolling. And most rising seniors at Haddonfield, who responded to a survey sent on behalf of the Inquirer and Daily News said they were considering New Jersey colleges.

"A substantial number of our kids are considering New Jersey colleges," Holman said.

For Robert Kwiatkowski, the choice to stay is both financial and sentimental. He figures he would pay more in tuition at a public college out of New Jersey, plus the costs of traveling to and from the school and living in the dorms. As for the sentimental part, New Jersey has been home for most of his life, and he recently watched his mother lose her mother.

"I basically want to be near her as much as possible," said Kwiatkowski, 16.

Kwiatkowski, who is interested in a medical career, is considering Rowan and Rutgers, as well as Rider, a private university.

Holman said he had not heard students make negative comments about New Jersey colleges, just a desire to be other places.

"It's not that they are disgusted with the politicians or the cost of living or taxes," he said. "They're looking for personal growth and they're maybe seeing a chance to grow in an environment that has different kinds of students from different backgrounds than they've been accustomed to."

That's what's driving Nadya Lopez's thinking. She'd really like to go to California.

"We have not necessarily the world," said Lopez, 16, a rising senior at Haddonfield, "but the country at our fingertips."