Protecting Higher Education for Lower- and Middle-Class Students, Families

Tara Nurin | September 19, 2014 | Education
Assembly committee crafts package of bills to freeze tuition, boost graduation rates at state’s public colleges and universities

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These are difficult times for students at New Jersey’s public college and universities — and for their families. Tuition has climbed steadily, forcing lower- and middle-class kids to borrow more and more money.

At the same time, fewer and fewer students are graduating in four years; many take six to finish their studies, which often means they’re on the hook for more loans. And some students don’t graduate at all. They’re left with a mountain of debt and no realistic way to pay it off.

Characterizing the situation as “staggering” and “out of control,” the Assembly Higher Education Committee began work yesterday on a package of 20 reform bills intended to lower education costs and increase the graduation rate. Thus far, they have passed the first four bills to come before them. Two other committees passed legislation to incentivize internships and regulate university police departments.

The most significant and controversial bill passed by the higher education committee would freeze in-state undergraduate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities for the first four and a half years of a student’s enrollment. Committee members released three bills. One would establish a longitudinal collection and retention system to stockpile academic data about all New Jersey students from pre-school until they enter workforce. Another would require colleges and universities to allow high-school students to earn credits at a lower cost than traditional students. A third bill would let students transfer credits from four-year to two-year colleges.

In addition, the Assembly Commerce Committee released a bill that would boost paid internships for college students studying life sciences, and the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee passed a bill that would require college and university police departments to adopt the Attorney General’s Guidelines on internal affairs policies and procedures.

Tuition Freeze

Assemblyman Joe Cryan (D-Union) testified before the higher education committee that the tuition freeze bill he cosponsored with committee chair Celeste Riley (D-Cumberland) aims to “provide stability to families and incentivize students to complete school.” Calling the current system of annual tuition hikes “almost untenable for working and middle-class families,” Cryan told the committee that eight of the state’s 11 four-year public colleges and universities graduate 40 percent or fewer of their students in four years. He noted that at the high end, The College of New Jersey graduates 70 percent of its students in four years, while at the low end, New Jersey City University graduates just seven percent in that time.

Cryan noted that “33,654 students have left New Jersey’s public schools in debt and without a degree,” adding, “We’re in an economic crisis.”

The bill, which passed with six “yea” votes and two abstentions, would require four-year public schools to guarantee each incoming New Jersey freshman steady tuition and fees for nine uninterrupted semesters. The Democratic Majority Office says the freeze could save some families up to $10,000 over the course of a six-year college career.

“The numbers (reported by Cryan) shock the conscience,” said Riley. “New Jersey families are hurting, and parents are taking from their retirement to pay for their child’s future. These are Jersey kids, and I want them to have every opportunity.”

But not everyone favored the bill. Representatives from Rutgers University, the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities (NJSCU), National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), and others testified that the freeze could result in higher tuition and fees for students who enroll in coming years.

“We are market-driven,” said David Rousseau, vice president of the New Jersey chapter of the NAICU. “There are cost increases we can’t predict. What if there’s a spike in healthcare or energy prices. Why should that entire cost be borne by the incoming class?”

Opponents also argued that the state has drastically cut its subsidies to higher education and that taking away the autonomy of university presidents and governing boards could derail money-raising efforts.

Supporters countered that other states have successfully implemented similar laws, and that universities should have to plan their budgets just like the state and families do. They also discussed a need for a proscribed tuition formula and more authority for the higher education secretary.

Longitudinal Data System

Despite “nay” votes from two of three Republicans, the higher education committee passed a bill with little discussion that requires the education commissioner to establish a statewide system to compile and keep test scores, graduation status, demographics, and quarterly earnings in the workforce on every public school child from the time she or he enters preschool until she or he begins a career, whether that happens instead of college or after. The idea is to gather deep information that can inform academic policy over time, without losing the valuable data stream that gets disrupted when students switch school districts.

The state already gathers such data and uses $5 million granted by the federal government to the departments of education and labor two years ago to expand their collection systems. But educational associations and think tanks like the NJSCU say they usually have to use unreliable ad-hoc information because whatever data is being collected is not making its way to the public in any sort of organized or usable form.

“We literally hand out surveys to students on graduation day and the response rate is 15 percent,” said Michael Klein, executive director and CEO, who testified in favor of the bill.

Despite his organization’s support, Klein appreciates opponents’ concerns over privacy. He cited a report by NAICU that addresses a nationwide move toward a federal system — something the organization opposes on privacy grounds and is prohibited by the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008.

“We do not see the need to re-ignite the debate over student privacy rights; nor do we see the value of investing still more money into building data systems,” reads the 2013 report.

Supporters seek to address privacy concerns by saying that students would be tracked with a permanent, nonidentifying number. And Riley adds that passage of this bill is necessary because she fears the commissioner may push back against the tool when President Barack Obama begins his expected higher-education rating system at the beginning of the 2015 school year, which may relax current federal collection requirements. The bill also sets up a workgroup to develop policies and recommendations on matters of privacy and the feasibility of collecting postsecondary employment and wage information.

Other Committee Action

Two remaining bills passed unanimously in committee. The first would establish a statewide reverse-transfer agreement that would allow students to transfer at least 30 credits from a four-year college to a two-year college. The bill is designed to keep students who leave four-year colleges before graduating from feeling discouraged that they wasted time and money.

“I’ve heard countless stories about people who have given up on college because they changed their mind about what they wanted to do midway through, only to go back years later and regret not having done it sooner,” said Joseph Lagana (D-Bergen) in a statement. “This will help encourage students to continue working towards a degree when they might otherwise be tempted to give up.”

The bill would also call on the higher-education secretary to work with postsecondary institutions to launch a marketing campaign to identify these so-called near completers and encourage them to re-enroll in a degree program.

The last bill would require public colleges and universities to extend class enrollment to high school students at a reduced tuition. Some speakers argued that colleges should have the option to make their own decisions on this matter.

Other Assembly Action

The paid internship bill passed by the Assembly Commerce Committee would create “The New Jersey Life Sciences Internship Challenge” program to offer tax-credit subsidies to small life-science companies that establish paid summer internships for undergraduates from New Jersey and those attending in-state schools.

The Law and Public Safety Committee-released bill would require college and university police departments to adopt the same guidelines as law-enforcement agencies, as written in the Attorney General’s Guidelines on internal affairs policies and procedures.

“These police departments are tackling the sort of problems and issues that other law enforcement agencies deal with,” said Charles Mainor (D-Hudson) “It makes sense to bring these departments in line with the policies and procedures used by every other law enforcement agency in the state.”