Keeping College Within Reach for Middle- and Working-Class Families

Chase Brush | September 28, 2016 | Education
With state investment in higher education continuing to decline, a new blueprint suggests ways to alleviate the burden on students and their families

student debt
A commission that studied the rising cost of higher education in New Jersey released its final report yesterday, calling for an expansion of certain student assistance programs and improved partnerships between community and four-year colleges. It also detailed ways to increase the financial literacy of students taking on school debt.

The long-awaited report comes at a time when the state has been under fire for dramatically underfunding its institutions of higher education.

The report, the work of the College Affordability Study Commission, is sweeping in scope, and features 20 different recommendations it says the state should follow to make it easier and more affordable for students to earn postsecondary degrees in the state. Nearly half of the proposals focus on reducing the time it takes for students to earn degrees, while the other half take aim at existing financial assistance programs in the state.

Such programs include the New Jersey Student Tuition Assistance Reward Scholarship (NJ STARS) Program, the Tuition Aid Grant (TAG) Program, and the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF), all of which the report said should be expanded and enhanced.

The commission, which began its work 18 months ago, was chaired by Dr. Frederick Keating, president of Rowan College at Gloucester County, who said in an accompanying statement that the recommendations “will give New Jersey’s students and their parents a road map towards timely and affordable degree completion.”

“High school students will become better educated in college financial planning and will have the opportunity to earn a head start on their college degree through high-quality dual enrollment programs. Students at the county colleges and four-year institutions will now have a menu of options to help them meet their goals at a more affordable cost than ever before,” he said.

Giancarlo Tello, a graduate student at Rutgers University-Newark and the lone student member of the commission, said, “Students in New Jersey are graduating with an average of around $30,000 in debt, and that’s not sustainable.”

Lauding the commission’s work, which received input from hundreds of stakeholders — including students, families, and faculty — Tello said it is his hope “that this will bring legislators and college administrators and students together to better address that problem.” He added the commission’s report offers initiatives that lawmakers and higher education officials can act on immediately.

Clocking in at 40 pages, the report is the ultimate product of the study commission, which lawmakers convened in 2015 to look at the issue of college affordability. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), as well as legislators like Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex and Morris) and Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), had proposed the idea, which Gov. Chris Christie eventually signed off on after rejecting an earlier version. With the lack of state aid for higher education a growing concern, lawmakers, amid a bevy of bills on the issue, sought the counsel of college and university stakeholders.

The commission consisted of nine members: six college and university administrators, one student, one active college professor, and one support staff member from the Office of Legislative Services.

According to the report, tuition costs at the public four-year institutions of higher education in New Jersey are the fourth highest in the nation, a statistic driven in part by the state’s slow tapering off of aid to its colleges and universities. An earlier report this year by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that New Jersey’s higher education spending was 23 percent below 2008 levels when adjusted for inflation based on the state’s latest budget. For fiscal year 2017, Christie has proposed keeping aid for colleges, universities, and students at $2.2 billion, roughly the same as this year and 7 percent lower than in 2015.

The long-term reduction amounts to $2,250 per student and represents a deeper cut than the national average, the report found. Ranked by the size of the reduction compared to 2008, New Jersey’s is the 13th largest percentage cut and 12th largest in dollars.

While not groundbreaking, the commission’s recommendations offer different avenues to obtaining postsecondary degrees in New Jersey. Among them are the creation of “dual enrollment” programs, in which high schools partner with an institution of higher education to offer coursework that can be applied toward both high school and postsecondary degrees; the development and implementation of “ 3 Plus 1 degree” programs, which would allow a student to earn a bachelor’s degree by completing three years at a county college and one year at a senior institution of higher education; the development of a three-year degree program, in which a student could continue full-time enrollment during the summer terms following the first and second year of enrollment.

Examples of schools putting the latter program in action, the report said, are Rowan College at Gloucester County and Rowan College at Burlington County, both of which partnered with Rowan University this year to allow students to complete an associate degree at the county college, stay on for a third year, and then transfer to Rowan University for their fourth and final year. Through that program, students would pay about $35,000, including room and board; by contrast, four years of enrollment at Rowan University for the same degree would cost nearly $100,000, including room and board.

The report also recommended improving students’ and families’ “financial literacy” by urging schools to take advantage of resources offered by New Jersey’s Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, as well as increasing state appropriations from financial assistance programs like EOF, which was created in the late sixties to ensure economically disadvantaged students had access to higher education.

The NJSTARS program was also targeted by the report, which said the state should reinvest in it to expand free-tuition eligibility for students at community colleges to the top 20 percent of the high school class. Students in the top 10 percent of their high school class would be eligible for a $2,000 per semester scholarship to attend a four-year institution of higher education beginning in the freshman year, as would students who attended a county college under the program and graduated with at least a 3.25 GPA upon enrollment at a four-year institution.

Additional funding, experts note, would return the scholarship to its 2012 levels, when lawmakers cut by more than half the amount high school seniors who graduated in the top 15 percent would get through the program. The number of students in the program dropped drastically following the cuts, from about 5,200 to 1,800 in 2014.

There was some dissent among members of the commission over some of the recommendations. In a minority report included in the appendix, Dr. Tim Haresign, an associate professor at Stockton University and president of the Council of New Jersey State College Locals, said that one area not addressed was “cost efficiency and administrative bloat.” He added the avoidance of the subject was not surprising, given that public four-year institutions in New Jersey often operate as “essentially independent fiefdoms with very little outside oversight,” making transparency and accountability difficult.

He offered as a recent example Kean University’s no-bid purchase of a $250,000 conference table from China, a decision that was widely panned by lawmakers and university officials last year. “It may be possible to spend our limited resources more efficiently, devoting a greater percentage of resources into direct educational expenses,” Haresign said. “The state may want to consider creating greater oversight of the public institutions and using independent outside firms to examine the system and suggest areas where efficiency can be improved without reducing the quality of education.”

With only a hard copy of the report released yesterday, few higher education stakeholders contacted for this story said they had had a chance to review it. But those who did praised its findings, saying the recommendations would go a long way to smoothing the path for students from high school to college and successful graduation.

“If students aren’t burdened by excessive, egregious student loan debt, then they’re going to be able to better contribute to the economy,” said Jacob C. Farbman, communications director at the New Jersey Council of Community Colleges. “They’ll be able to buy homes, buy cars, get better jobs. There’s so much more people can do when they don’t have a student loan hanging over their heads, and these recommendations all help do that.”

The commission held nine public hearings during which it heard testimony from dozens of school and state representatives, including executives from HESAA and the New Jersey Presidents’ Council.

Still, the report is unlikely to satisfy some critics of the state’s recent approach to higher education funding. They point to the continued divestment from public college and universities by the state as the main reason the cost of a degree has gone up, and argue that until something is done, students and families — and the economy — will continue to suffer.

Brandon McKoy, a policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective, said that while the recommendations in the commission’s report are positive steps, they should not distract from better funding the state’s higher education system.

“Those are laudable programs, but if we are truly trying to address the issue of college affordability, then that requires certain things that this report does necessarily do,” he said. “We don’t want the state to come out viewing higher ed as something where achieving a degree requires engaging in the student loan system. That should not be the default.”