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

Bill Mooney | March 21, 2014 | Education, Politics
Democratic Assembly members release package of 20 bills crafted to address everything from tuition and tax breaks to online learning

rutgers
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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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.

No Surprise

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:

College Readiness

  • A-2800 – Requires high school students to be assessed using college placement cut scores to determine their readiness for college-level course work and the Commissioner of Education to develop plans to improve college and career counseling for students.
  • College Completion

  • A-2801 – Provides that no more than 120 credits will be required for a bachelor’s degree awarded by a public institution and no more than 60 credits for an associate degree.
  • A-2802 – Establishes a statewide reverse-transfer agreement under which at least 30 credits that a student earns toward a bachelor’s degree at a four-year public institution are transferrable to any county college for credit toward an associate degree to help encourage re-enrollment and degree completion and help students know that their time and money were not wasted.
  • A-2803 – This bill mandates transparency by requiring four-year public institutions to provide information on their websites regarding cost of attendance, graduation rates, and information on faculty. Four-year public and private institutions will also be required to report on their websites regarding the number of students required to take remedial instruction and the graduation rates for those students.
  • A-2804 – Mandates that county-college presidents develop a plan to graduate 33 percent of students by 2020 to help increase graduation rates.
  • A-2805 – Directs the Secretary of Higher Education to oversee the development of a common core course-numbering system for general education core classes leading to an associate or bachelor’s degree.
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    Cost

  • A-2806 – Establishes the NJ School Counts County College Scholarship Program, modeled after a similar program that has worked at Cumberland County College, in which qualifying students receive a two-year scholarship at a county college.
  • A-2807 – Freezes tuition and fees at the same rate for nine semesters following a student’s initial enrollment at a four-year public or independent institution, potentially saving some students upward of $10,000 over the course of a six-year degree completion program.
  • A-2808 – Directs the Secretary of Higher Education to study the prevalence and cost of online courses and if any cost savings achieved are passed on to students.
  • A-2809 – Requires higher-education institutions to develop online textbooks available to students at no charge and mandates the buyback of used textbooks at 50 percent of the purchase price as a remedy for the growing costs of college textbooks, which have gone up in price 82 percent in 10 years.
  • A-2810 – Establishes a state income tax deduction for student-loan interest paid equivalent to federal levels. This would apply to all loans for New Jersey residents as remedy to what has been labeled the “brain drain.”
  • A-2811 – Prohibits four-year public and private institutions from requiring students to purchase meal plans.
  • Data Collection

  • A-2812 – Requires the development of a longitudinal statewide data system capable of retaining individual information starting when a student enrolls in preschool through entry into the workforce to better inform education and labor policies.
  • Accountability

  • A-676 – Directs Secretary of Higher Education to establish performance-based funding plans for public institutions of higher education.
  • A2813 – Requires 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.
  • A-2814 – Directs the Secretary of Higher Education to revoke a proprietary school’s license to award academic degrees if the school fails to achieve a six-year graduation rate of at least 75 percent for full-time students enrolled in a four-year degree program.
  • A-2815 – Requires New Jersey Educational Facilities Authority to annually prepare a report on debt held by public institutions of higher education.
  • A-2816 – Directs State Auditor to conduct audit of fees charged by public institutions of higher education in order to tell how these fees are being distributed and how they are benefiting college students.
  • Pathways To Success

  • A-2817 – Requires institutions participating in dual-enrollment programs to charge a reduced tuition rate to high school students participating in the program.
  • A-2818 – Requires undergraduate students enrolled in a four-year degree program to file a degree plan with the institution by the completion of 45 credit hours of coursework and requires degree-seeking county-college students to file a degree plan upon entering the institution. Also requires public institutions of higher education to develop pathway systems that establish graduation progress benchmarks for each major.