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Higher-Education Bills Aim to Bring College -- and Graduation -- Within Reach

Democratic Assembly members release package of 20 bills crafted to address everything from tuition and tax breaks to online learning


Two state lawmakers say they want to make college more affordable, degrees more attainable, and schools more accountable to both of those goals.

Assembly members Celeste Riley (D-Salem) and Joe Cryan (D-Union) unveiled a package of 20 bills on Thursday that address a wide range of higher-education issues: graduation rates, transferrable credits, income tax breaks, online learning, and performance-based funding among them.

The legislators said they hope to stem the loss of top student talent and increase the enrollment of New Jersey residents for whom the college experience is becoming a mirage.

“We know it’s going to create a debate,’’ Cryan said. He pointed out that tuition and fees have grown well above 20 percent annually on average over the past six years, and said that by enacting these bills, “We are providing real savings to the higher-education consumer.”

Getting Down to Basics

On a fundamental level, the bills set benchmarks for higher-education institutions to meet. For example, under one bill, a four-year public institution could be closed for failing to graduate at least 60 percent of its students over six years. In another bill, the Secretary of Higher Education would have to develop performance-based funding plans. A percentage of state aid would be based on factors such as the pace at which students complete credits, or for county colleges the number of students who move from remedial to college-level courses in a given year.

Another bill would freeze tuition for nine semesters, while one proposal would establish an income tax deduction for student loan interest paid.

The lawmakers and higher-education experts expressed sensitivity to the idea that tighter measurements of performance, coupled with limitations on revenue, might lead some institutions to turn away students that can’t help them meet the goals.

So what would be the cost of such proposed changes? That is a question even the sponsors admit they don’t fully know. Riley, chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, plans to hold a series of hearings at universities around the state and acknowledged that these proposals probably will undergo change before becoming laws.

Peter McDonough, Rutgers University’s senior vice president for External Affairs, talked of the bills as a starting point, a recognition that change is needed in a pattern that has seen financial support for higher education decline since the Whitman years.

“Twenty-five years ago the state made up 70 percent of the funding for higher education and tuition made up 30 percent. Speaking roughly, that is completely flipped,” he said.

Susan A. Cole, chair of the New Jersey Presidents Council, which is a coalition of officials representing the state’s public, private, and community colleges went further.

“It’s important for us to understand the problem we are trying to solve,” she said. “If the problem is that the cost of higher education in the public sector is too high in New Jersey, and that’s the problem we want to solve, then I don’t believe regulating from Trenton how we structure academic programs is going to solve that problem.”

Cole, who also is president of Montclair State University, said, “That problem is directly related to and caused by the fact that support for public institutions in New Jersey is inadequate and irrational.”

She explained that legislators’ continued cuts to public funding for higher education have helped exacerbate academic problems that the legislation is designed to help correct.

At the county- or community-college level, they see a different aspect of the problem. “We are open-door institutions,’’ said Jacob Farbman, spokesman for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. They deal with students out of high school who often are not ready for college, and it is a consideration that as a consequence of some of these bills they may find themselves accepting even more students in that category as other institutions become choosier about who they admit.

Farbman explained that county colleges have had a program since 2008 that is designed to improve the success rate of those students -- the “Big Idea’’ project, in which, for example, a student’s problem area is diagnosed and then addressed in order to improve achievement. “We’re doing a lot more precise diagnostics, so to speak,’’ he said.

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