Senate, Assembly Taking Separate Paths to Making College More Affordable

Tara Nurin | February 13, 2015 | Education
Lower chamber hammers out package of bills, while upper house creates a commission to study the ‘college affordability crisis’

Credit: Amanda Brown
Assembly Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex and Morris).
The state Senate and Assembly seem to be at loggerheads over a package of 20 bills that would make it easier for New Jerseyans to get into college and to pay for it. The legislation was crafted by the Assembly Higher Education Committee, and thus far the Assembly has passed approximately a dozen of the bills — most of them overwhelmingly.

They’ve been referred to the Senate Higher Education Committee, where they have yet to be scheduled for hearings. The prospect of that happening anytime soon appears remote.

Assembly Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex and Morris) said she was disappointed that the Senate hasn’t taken action on legislation.

“The Assembly devoted an enormous amount of time to this bill package,” she said. “These bills … could be transformational for higher education in New Jersey. I hope the Senate will still give them due consideration.”

But that doesn’t look likely. Instead, her counterpart in the senate, Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) cosponsored a bill that the Assembly passed and the governor signed to establish a College Affordability Study Commission designed to tackle what Cunningham calls the “college affordability crisis.”

Rather than pass one reform at a time, “Our intent is to take a deliberative approach to making college more affordable and accessible in New Jersey but to ensure that we do not take action that will be counterproductive to our goal,” said Cunningham, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee.

The Senate committee spent a good portion of its five meetings in 2014 addressing bills that relate to preventing and reporting incidents and helping victims of sexual violence on campus. A package of these bills passed the committee yesterday. The Assembly committee met 10 times during that period and concentrated most of its attention on affordability and accessibility, putting together the package of bills, along with some others.

Here’s a look at what probably will and won’t happen with college affordability in New Jersey this year:

College Affordability Study Commission

Last week, Gov. Christie signed into law a new version of the College Affordability Study Commission, which he vetoed last year with recommendations. Lawmakers accepted his recommendations and are beginning to set up the commission now.

The Senate president and Assembly speaker will appoint 12 lawmakers, public and private college presidents and faculty, members of the public, and a current student to spend 18 months studying proposals to reduce college costs. As per the governor’s recommendation in his veto, the Office of Legislative Services, rather than the initially proposed secretary
of higher education, will provide staff support.

Among the topics the commission will explore:

  • an accelerated degree pilot program that would condense the amount of time in which high-performing high school students could earn a medical degree or graduate-level science or engineering degree
  • an affordable degree pilot program to set up partnerships between county colleges and four-year public schools that would allow students to save money by attending a county college for two years before completing a bachelor’s degree at the four-year school; Rowan University and Gloucester County College have already implemented such a program
  • a pay-it-forward pilot program that would retroactively accept tuition payments and fees for public colleges and universities after students graduate and secure a job; students enrolled in the program would pay back a percentage of their income for a specified number of years
  • improving the performance of the New Jersey Better Educational Savings Trust (NJBEST) by taking steps to make sure it ranks nationally as “one of the best based on rate of return, expense ratios, and other relevant criteria,” expanding investment options for investors, and finding more flexible alternatives to the NJBEST Scholarship
  • making the New Jersey College Loans to Assist State Students (NJCLASS) Loan Program more transparent and consumer-friendly
  • Last year’s version of the bill passed the Senate unanimously and the revised version passed the Assembly this year by
    a vote of 79-0.

    According to the Senate Majority Office, nationally, the average tuition for four-year public colleges has more than tripled over the past 30 years. Seven million borrowers have defaulted on federal or private student loans.

    “Higher education should be available to all of our residents at an affordable cost,” said Cunningham.

    Writing a New Master Plan

    In addition to the study commission, Cunningham is pushing for the secretary of higher education to write a new master plan to identify priorities for the state’s system of higher education. At the end of last month, her committee released a bill that would instruct Secretary Rochelle Hendricks to write the first new plan since 2003 and overhaul it every seven years.

    “The state invests more the $2 billion per year into our higher-education system, yet we continue to do so without any strategic plan to create a pathway to smart growth,” Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic), who serves as vice chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said in a statement. “It is time that we have a serious plan for how our colleges and universities statewide will provide world-class education for years to come.”

    Responsibility for devising a master plan fell to the Higher Education Commission until Christie abolished the commission and transferred its duties to the secretary in 2011. The commission revised the 2003 plan in 2005 and wrote a “progress report” in 2007 but nothing’s been done since.

    Committee members note that since the 2007 report, the economic recession, the 2012 “New Jersey Medical and Health Science Education Restructuring Act” and the “Building Our Future Bond Act” have altered the state’s higher-education picture drastically. The bill, which originated in the Senate and has no companion in the Assembly, now heads to the full body for a vote.

    Manufacturing Success

    Hendricks may end up with a lot more responsibilities, as well, if two bills instructing her office to design and oversee educational programs in manufacturing pass in Trenton. The bills, which notably did not originate in the Assembly Higher Education Committee, do provide examples of where the two chambers are finding common ground on college accessibility.

    The first would charge Hendricks with working with relevant entities to conceive a pipeline through the county colleges and vocational school districts that would teach students the skills they need to work in New Jersey’s high-demand manufacturing and advanced manufacturing sectors. According to the Assembly Majority Office, the career pathway will provide lessons in “traditional and advanced manufacturing processes and methods of production including machinery, technology, tools, and equipment.”

    “Investments in manufacturing have a stronger impact than investments in any other economic sector when it comes to growing our economy, but we need a workforce that’s prepared to fill these positions,” said Assemblyman Carmelo Garcia (D-Hudson). “Creating jobs in this area will help us narrow the growing income inequality gap that has gripped our nation over the last thirty years.”

    The bill has been reported out of the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee and the Senate Higher Education Committee.

    The second bill directs the secretary to design and implement a pilot program to accelerate career and technical certificates for qualified displaced workers and qualified disadvantaged workers who lack needed math, literacy, or technical skills. Hendricks must include at least 20 industry-recognized certificate programs that take one year or less to complete. Her timetable is brief: she’s obligated to develop and offer the first 10 programs by this upcoming fall semester and the second 10 by the spring semester of 2016-2017.

    Under the pilot program, county colleges, county vocational school districts, and adult-education programs could opt in. The program would be funded through fiscal year 2020 from the Workforce Development Partnership Fund. It’s estimated it would cost $1,784,741 per year through July 1, 2020.

    The Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee has reported the bill out, as has the Senate Higher Education Committee. It awaits a hearing in the Senate budget committee.

    NJTEAM Act

    Though the New Jersey Tuition Equality for America’s Military (NJTEAM) Act traveled through both chambers’ veterans affairs committees instead of being routed through the higher education committees, the bill does call for veterans and their spouses and children who reside in New Jersey to qualify for in-state tuition at public universities, regardless of their permanent home.

    “Offering in-state tuition at a public college can help our veterans acquire the knowledge and skills that today’s employers are seeking at a reasonable price,” said Assembly sponsor Jay Webber (R-Morris) in a statement.

    The bill passed both houses unanimously and awaits Gov. Christie’s signature.

    What’s in the Package the Senate Education Committee Is Ignoring

    Of the 20-bill package, more than a dozen have passed the full Assembly and wait for action in the Senate Higher Education Committee. The most controversial: a proposal to freeze tuition at public and independent colleges and universities for the first nine semesters of an undergraduate student’s attendance at the same institution. It passed the chamber by a vote of 48-21-6.

    Other bills require higher education institutions to be more transparent about their costs, limit the number of credits they can require for a degree, and direct the state auditor to monitor the fees charged by public universities. Other bills direct the secretary to revoke a school’s license to award degrees and recommend it lose accreditation if it fails to graduate a certain percentage of students within a set amount of time. Yet another bill requires some undergraduates to file a degree plan and forces universities to develop a “pathway systems to graduation.”

    With questions surrounding the efficacy of online degree-granting programs, a final bill compels the secretary to study the “prevalence, cost, and quality of online courses compared to traditional classroom courses offered by institutions of higher education,” according to Assembly Majority Office.

    “Online schools are popping up more and more these days offering lots of promises to students who may not have the time or money to attend a traditional college,” said Assemblyman Tim Eustace (D-Bergen and Passaic). “This bill will help create some consumer protections for prospective students considering an online alternative.”