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Interactive Map: College Graduation Rates Vary Widely in Garden State

With fewer students earning degree in four years, even more financial burden is added to cost of higher education

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In an address in Iowa last week, Gov. Chris Christie presented his education-reform agenda in advance of his expected run for the Republican presidential nomination.

Christie’s speech included his ideas for making higher education more accessible, but said little about one trend that has driven up costs -- the length of time it takes to earn a degree.

In New Jersey, about 4 in 10 students attending four-year colleges graduated with a bachelor's degree from the college where they initially enrolled within four years in 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

That's comparable to the national average. After six years, the graduation rate rose to 58 percent in New Jersey and after eight years to 61 percent.

What this means for students and parents is a larger bill, more debt or not finishing because of an inability to pay, and a need to get into the workforce full time. That has broad implications for both individuals and society as a whole.

"College graduates earn more," wrote Kati Haycock of The Education Trust, a nonprofit organization promoting high academic achievement at all levels of education, in a blog post last month about higher education's role in breaking the poverty cycle. "They are less likely to be unemployed. But they also stand out in other things we value. They are more likely to vote, to volunteer, to have healthy life practices, and even to have better mental health. What our schools and colleges do, in other words, is hugely important to our economy, to our democracy, and to our society more generally."

Complete College America, a nonprofit organization working with some states to increase the number of people who earn a college degree or quality career certificate, outlined the problem and potential solutions in a report titled "Four-Year Myth" issued last December. New Jersey is not one of the member states.

"We recognize that not every student can or will graduate on time," the report states. "And there are understandable reasons. However, something is clearly wrong when the overwhelming majority of public colleges graduate less than 50 percent of their full-time students in four years. Current on-time graduation rates suggest that the 'four-year degree' and the 'two-year degree' have become little more than modern myths for far too many of our students. The reality is that our system of higher education costs too much, takes too long, and graduates too few."

In New Jersey, graduation rates vary widely. The Jersey City campus of University of Phoenix, a national for-profit school, reported 2 percent of students earned a degree in four years in 2013, according to the NCES' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Among the state colleges, New Jersey City University, also in Jersey City, had a four-year completion rate of just 6 percent.

By contrast, 87 percent of the freshmen who enrolled in 2009 at Princeton University, New Jersey's only Ivy League school, graduated in 2013. The College of New Jersey, in Ewing, had the highest four -year graduation rate of state colleges -- 74 percent.

TCNJ President R. Barbara Gitenstein is proud of her school’s graduation rate. In a column that ran last February in the Star-Ledger, Gitenstein wrote that the length of time it takes a student to complete a degree is a crucial, though often overlooked, part of figuring the cost of a degree.

"At the College of New Jersey, we are committed to keeping students' net costs as low as possible, because that represents the real burden they face in attaining a degree," she wrote. "Time to degree completion is an important consideration for a separate economic reason: Students who graduate in four years have more lifetime earning power than those who take longer. That translates into nearly $100,000 in income during the time when their peers at other institutions are still accumulating debt. It also puts them years closer to their next promotion or raise, a trend that carries forward."

Gitenstein said TCNJ is one of only six public colleges and universities nationally that maintain four-year graduation rates greater than 70 percent.

"There are concrete reasons our students choose us, stay with us and graduate on time," she wrote. "We attract and admit strong students who can meet the academic challenges they will encounter. We engage them in residential-education programs and service-learning requirements that extend the educational experience beyond the classroom. We place them in small classes led by faculty members who are scholars, but whose priority is effective teaching."

The college has become selective and is ranked as one of the top colleges in the region by U.S. News and World Report. Colleges like NJCU, on the other hand, take more students who apply, including many of whom are not as well-prepared. That is part of the reason why their four-year completion rates are lower.

"Of the new students who come to NJCU each fall, (freshmen) are less than half the new students, as many are transfer students," said Sue Henderson, the college's president. "These freshmen most often need remedial work, which extends their time to graduation. Some also have work and family responsibilities that make it difficult to complete. We are working to improve the remediation process and providing additional support and scholarships so that they can complete in a timely manner. Nationally, institutions with similar student profiles have like graduation rates."

Streamlined remediation programs are one solution offered by Complete College America in its report. The group recommends a much more structured system of higher education delivery to provide students with the most direct route to graduation. It organizes majors into a semester-by-semester set of courses that lead to on-time completion, saving students and their families the time and money associated with extended time on campus. It also calls for "more intrusive" advising of students.

Such a system would eliminate the need for dozens of extra credits many students wind up taking in order to complete their requirements. These unnecessary courses wind up costing almost $20 billion a year, according to the report.

"Those of us in positions of leadership in higher education should be very concerned about the financial challenges our students face," Gitenstein wrote, "even though state disinvestment has been the driver of escalating tuition."

In his speech, Christie called for more transparency and efficiency in college finances. He said that rising costs are putting higher education out of reach for many, especially those at the bottom end of the economic scale.

However, operating aid to New Jersey's colleges has dropped by nearly 10 percent since 2009, and Christie has cut scholarship money for the NJ STARS program for community college students and funding to the Education Opportunity Fund for low-income students.

Christie's education plan does include one provision that could help shorten the amount of time it takes to complete a degree. He suggested allowing students to receive college credit "for the knowledge they've earned outside the classroom," saying this would help them graduate sooner and would also lower costs.

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