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.
Two bills in the package deal directly with county colleges. One would mandate schools develop plans to graduate 33 percent of students by 2020 — something Cryan and Farbman both said is realistic. The other would establish a two-year scholarship program similar to one in place at Cumberland County College. That institution collaborated with the chamber of commerce and created a scholarship fund that was tied to a high school student’s attendance and performance, according to Farbman.
The lawmakers as well as the educators said Thursday that the bills are just a starting point for discussions and hearings into complex issues.
The process of pinpointing higher-education problems and solutions began a few years ago and involved observing best practices here and in other states, the lawmakers said.
Some of the proposals seem guaranteed to generate debate.
One bill that might be the most controversial — A-2807 — would freeze tuition and fees for nine semesters after a student enrolls at a four-year public or private institution. That might save a student more than $10,000 over six years, according to the sponsors’ estimates, but it might also cost the state approximately $8 million, necessitating a subsidy at least in the early going, they acknowledged.
The High Price of Doing Nothing
But Cryan and Riley argue that the cost of doing nothing is steeper. By their calculations, more than 33,500 students every six years are left without a degree and holding massive debt with no way to pay it. They measured six years because of the difficulty students have completing their schooling in four.
Another bill, A-2813, would require the closure of a four-year public institution that fails to achieve a six-year graduation rate of at least 50 percent for full-time undergraduates.
There are bills that speak to addressing high school students’ college readiness, setting a ceiling of no more than 120 credits for a bachelor’s degree, barring four-year public institutions from requiring the purchase of meal plans, and directing the state Office of Higher Education to study the cost of online courses and whether any savings are passed on to students. The bill would mandate that such a study would list online courses being offered, the cost compared to similar classroom courses, and whether any savings are passed on to students.
And there is a bill — A-2810 — that would provide for a state income tax deduction for student loan interest and mandate that it be equivalent to federal levels. The latter establishes a maximum allowable deduction of $2,500 based on income levels. This bill possibly could cost the state approximately $10.5 million, according to an Office of Legislative Services estimate, the legislators said.
The nature of some of the bills — some would limit colleges’ revenue streams while others would mandate improved performance — seem at loggerheads, according to Cole.
None of these measures will be dealt with in a vacuum.
Pay It Forward
The package is likely to get serious consideration in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Last year, Riley and district-mates state Senate President Steve Sweeney of West Deptford and Assemblyman John Burzichelli of Paulsboro pushed for New Jersey to adopt a version of the so-called “pay forward” option that allows students to repay tuition out of post-graduation income.
Although Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill in January that would have set up a commission to study the idea, Sweeney reintroduced it and it is moving through the committee stage.
And there are other political considerations. These far-reaching higher-education discussions will be conducted as New Jersey — a state that seemingly always has one eye on the next election — slowly gears up for a gubernatorial race that could include Sweeney.
Riley said Thursday she had not formally reached out to the governor’s office about these new bills.
The bills did not come as a surprise to higher education officials. Rutgers’ McDonough said none of the concepts are brand new; there have been broad, general discussions in the past about some of them, and everyone is aware that many of these bills today do not resemble what they will become.
“This is not going to an adversarial process but one where we can understand what’s good, what’s bad, and what needs to be improved,” he said. “They are goals we all share.”
As Cryan put it, “Our intention was to provide a very specific set of proposals for debate for various issues that matter to the higher-education community. We want to create that debate in a holistic approach.”
He summarized the bills’ goals as providing students affordability, access, and achievement.
But Cole continued to sound a note of caution and said that the debate parameters have to be set.
“It’s not that their intentions are wrong,” she said of the lawmakers, “but if we don’t put them in the context of how many students we want to educate, what should it cost, who should pay that cost, if we don’t address the structures of our very big investments in statewide financial aid programs, and if we don’t look at how much of what we do incentivizes higher costs, we’re never going to solve the problem.”
The complete package consists of 20 bills that address various facets of higher education: