Op-Ed: State Plan for Higher Education Needs Sharper Focus

Darryl G. Greer | April 9, 2019 | Opinion
Although on target with its ‘student-centered’ approach, Murphy administration’s new vision lacks key specifics

Darryl G. Greer
Citizens and policymakers should be pleased with the release at the end of March of a long-awaited New Jersey plan for higher education. The plan “Where Opportunity Meets Innovation” is on target with its “student-centered” approach, and sets reasonable long-term goals regarding college opportunity, affordability and outcomes. The vision as presented, however, misses an explicit focus on a few key issues driving college success, and fails to propose a solid rationale for funding public colleges.

Its organization of responsibilities to students, colleges and the state parallels recommendations offered in a 2016 paper that I authored. The paper synthesized survey research, focus groups and seminars at Stockton University, informed by state and national experts, and supported by then Secretary of Higher Education, Rochelle Hendricks.

As several working groups move forward on strategies for the plan’s implementation within the context of the 10 student bill-of-rights goals, higher education officials can sharpen the plan’s focus. For example, while the plan is strong on the goals of experiential learning opportunities and earning credit outside the classroom, it lacks specifics on how these opportunities are to be developed. Survey research at Stockton, including a 2014 unprecedented study of 5,000 undergraduates at 31 New Jersey colleges, indicates as the plan points out, that most students are already working. But colleges do not do enough to tie work and classroom experiences together, a major disconnect identified by students.

Preparation for work

Practical experiences, such as internships and academic credit for them, are key to college completion and preparation for the workforce.

  • Business needs to do more to provide internships that pay. National research shows that these are the ones that really count in helping students both substantively and financially.
  • Colleges need to invest more in college career services and to reform academic programs by helping faculty tie the programs to community service and workforce needs.
  • The state needs to provide more direct funding and incentives to help make this happen to meet students’ number one goal in attending college — to acquire the knowledge and practical skills and abilities to find good jobs and to prosper for a lifetime. Only about 20 percent of students had internship opportunities, according to our research. In addition, the state must invest in the colleges’ efforts to build business partnerships within the reformed academic programs.
  • The plan also has a goal for on-time college completion. More can be done to help students’ complete college on time, and the plan hits on several solid recommendations. Missing is a sense of urgency about needed reform, beginning with a solid plan when students enter college. The college “pathways” approach, pioneered by some of our community colleges, is a sound one, but not applicable across the board at some traditional institutions and those that serve adult learners.

    Colleges need to put far more resources into academic advising and career-counseling services and require students use of these services a condition of graduation. Our statewide student survey of undergraduates found that even though students are aware of these services, too few use them regularly, and most don’t see them as important to completion of college. This makes for a big disconnect between students’ aspirations for academic and practical skills, the goal of colleges for timely completion, and goal of business to hire well-prepared students.

    Flawed concept of ‘performance funding’

    Taking the long way around this problem by only encouraging colleges to improve completion will doom this goal. It follows that the state should do much more to help colleges achieve this goal by investing more through the state budget to tie advising and counseling services to desired outcomes.

    The concept of “outcomes-based or performance funding” to achieve the plan’s goals is flawed for New Jersey at the current time for several reasons. There is not enough new money — about $20 million — allocated for performance incentives to make much of a difference across public institutions spending billions of dollars. Next, the few variables used as outcome incentives, such as increased number of graduates, are too few and cursory to push institutions to do much more to improve quality or to help expand innovation and partnerships. It homogenizes rather than differentiates college missions.

    Beyond there being too few dollars to make a difference, national studies indicate that performance funding often fails to help meet the goal of improving college completion.

    The state has had no clear rationale for funding higher education since about 1990. This half-hearted approach is no substitute for a sound one. The state still lacks knowledge about what it is funding in terms of policy goals when it budgets for our colleges. The college and university presidents, who have lobbied for more state funding for years, have failed to offer their own thoughtful rationale for state funding. Accordingly, the Murphy administration and presidents should roll up their sleeves and work with the Legislature and others to build a funding rationale for predictable investment in higher education, tied to state needs and a public agenda.

    Finally, the plan misses a key opportunity to build a stronger constituency for the value of college in New Jersey. Higher education remains a relatively low public-policy priority. Meeting the plan’s ambitious goals will mean engaging citizens about the importance of higher learning not only to benefit the individual, but also its value to the common good and a prosperous and civil society.