Gov.-elect Phil Murphy says his No. 1 priority is to grow New Jersey’s economy.
And that can’t happen without a skilled workforce.
But given the high cost of pursuing a post-secondary degree and the fact that more students in New Jersey choose out-of-state colleges than in any other state, higher education leaders want the incoming governor to address college affordability and invest in programs that will keep students here.
It makes no sense, business and higher education leaders say, for New Jersey to invest heavily in its K-12 students, only to watch young adults leave when it comes time for college. Often, they say, students who move out of the state never return, meaning they wind up not contributing to New Jersey’s workforce or economy.
That the state does not invest in higher education the same way it does with its K-12 schools is a “weakness” in the system, said Richard Levao, chair of the New Jersey Presidents’ Council, whose board is made up of presidents of various public and private colleges and universities.
“New Jersey is one of the top five for K-12 investments and one of the bottom five for higher education investments. There’s an asymmetry,” said Levao, who is president of Bloomfield College, a private liberal arts school, and serves on Murphy’s education transition committee.
In New Jersey, state aid per student dropped 40 percent over a 25-year period between fiscal years 1991 and 2016, while public institutions of higher education experienced a 63 percent growth in enrollment, according to the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Cuts in public funding have forced schools to rely on students to shoulder more of the costs. New Jersey's public four-year schools have the fourth-highest average in-state tuition and fees, at $13,870 per year, while its community colleges have the 13th-highest average in-county tuition and fees, at $4,870, said NJASCU, citing College Board data.
“The major reason for the increase in student debt, for the increase in tuition, for the lack of affordability and in some cases for the outmigration is that the cost of public education [in New Jersey] has shifted from the taxpayers to individual students,” NJASCU spokeswoman Pamela Hersh said in an email.
Murphy, a Democrat, has proposed making community college free to every New Jerseyan, at a cost of $200 million per year. He has cautioned, however, that the initiative would not happen immediately and that it would be incumbent upon growing the economy.
"I will work from a principle that nobody should be shut out of today's fast-paced and competitive economy, especially because they cannot afford to learn," Murphy said on the campaign trail in September.
Last month, Montclair State University announced it will award Presidential Scholarships worth up to $20,000 over four years to accomplished incoming freshmen.
President Susan Cole said state aid has declined 15 percent since 1999, yet her school has nearly doubled its number of full-time students. Despite the fiscal challenges, she stressed the importance of attracting and retaining young talent. The school serves a large population of low-income students: Forty-five percent of its freshmen come from households with incomes below $60,000, she said.
“If we want to have a level playing field … we have to do this,” she said of the scholars program. “What New Jersey has done has made it harder and harder and harder for these students to attend the institutions that are here to serve them.”
Some are also calling on the state to make regular capital investments so that colleges and universities can maintain or construct new buildings.
“Students are attracted to facilities that meet their academic and lifestyle needs. … Most of our schools are filled to capacity,” Hersh said. “Infrastructure has to be expanded and improved to meet the demands of more students — if we expect more of those out-migrated students to remain in-state.”
According to the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, New Jersey has the highest net outmigration rate among high school graduates. Nearly 34,800 students left the state to attend college elsewhere in fall 2014, while about 5,900 moved in, for a net loss of just over 28,900 students, the association reports.
Some state lawmakers are calling for a study to understand why students are leaving the state.
To be sure, some students choose to move away for college because they’re seeking independence from their families or because they’re attracted to certain programs offered at other schools. But higher education leaders say the lack of new or additional facilities, including dormitories, to attract or accommodate more students has also been problematic.
In March, the state Legislature appropriated the remaining balance of a $750 million bond measure voters approved in 2012 to finance capital projects at public colleges and universities. It was the first such voter-approved bond in 25 years.
To make college more affordable while also dealing with capacity issues, Rowan University launched a “3+1” program in 2016 to allow students pursuing a bachelor’s degree to take courses at a county college the first three years before transferring to Rowan for their senior year. Students pay the lower, county college tuition rates their first three years.
The school now has arrangements with two campuses: Rowan College at Burlington County and Rowan College at Gloucester County.
“We need to use these county colleges to provide options for our students that are extremely affordable,” Rowan University President Ali Houshmand said.
He suggests the incoming Murphy administration convene a committee of school representatives, business leaders and elected officials to regularly explore new ways of restructuring higher education to ensure it remains affordable, accessible and relevant to present workforce demands.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney joined school and business leaders in October in announcing a new initiative to bring together representatives from vocational-technical schools, county colleges and four-year institutions of higher education to work with business and industry leaders to develop “stackable credentials.” Individuals going through these programs could stop their formal education or training after earning a credential, or continue on with their studies or training to earn a series of credentials that would meet current workforce demands.
Melanie Willoughby, chief government affairs officer for the NJBIA, said it’s critical for K-12 students to be introduced to various career pathways before entering college to avoid potentially wasting time and money pursuing a degree they won’t need. Knowing what programs are available in New Jersey that would lead to a job upon completion would also entice more students to remain in the state for their training and studies, she said.
“The more options that demonstrate there is a career waiting for them in New Jersey will help keep them here,” she said.
Photo caption: New Jersey's public four-year schools have the fourth-highest average in-state tuition and fees, at $13,870 per year. | Wikimedia Commons