State lawmakers are hoping to save students and their parents money by getting more young adults out of college and into the job market faster. Currently, less than half of college students earn a bachelor’s degree from a New Jersey school in four years.
The Senate Higher Education Committee on Thursday released a bill (S-791) that would require students to develop and file with their school a plan for completing their studies, as well as ask college officials to monitor their progress. It represents another frontal attack by state Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) and other lawmakers on the high cost of college in New Jersey, and the high debt load that often accompanies it.
“It is crucial that we work diligently to do all that we can to ensure our students graduate on time,” said Cunningham, calling the state’s low four-year completion rate “troubling.”
An NJ Spotlight analysis of U.S. Department of Education 2018 data on college graduation rates found that just 44% of close to 30,000 full-time students attending school for the first time graduated with a bachelor’s degree in four years from the college in which they enrolled as freshmen. The completion rate reaches a slightly higher 45% when accounting for those who got a bachelor’s degree or an associate degree or other certificate within four years of enrolling.
With an average price tag of $14,540, not including room and board, New Jersey’s four-year public institutions rank fourth in the U.S. this year for tuition and fee charges, according to the College Board’s annual survey of colleges. And a report issued last week by the website LendEDU estimates that New Jerseyans are saddled with the second highest monthly student loan payment on average in the nation, $225.56, with only Massachusetts having a higher payment of $229.02 monthly.
“The faster students are able to graduate from college, the faster they can start their careers and pay off their debt,” Cunningham said. “In order to guarantee this for our students, this legislation will put a safeguard in place to keep them on track.” The bill, which Cunningham has been trying to get enacted for at least six years, would require undergraduate students at colleges and universities to meet with an academic official and outline the requirements of their degree program along with a plan to meet those requirements. At four-year schools, students would be required to meet with their adviser by the time they complete 45 credit hours, roughly after 1 ½ years of study. Students at county colleges and specialized or for-profit schools also would be required to create a degree plan before they complete 30 credits.
Graduation progress benchmarks
Schools would also have some responsibilities under the bill. It would mandate that they develop graduation progress benchmarks for each major, which would specify credit and course criteria indicating satisfactory progress toward a degree. Students who fail on a benchmark would be required to meet with an academic adviser before their next course registration.
The bill is a good start, but puts too much responsibility on students, Yonaton Yares, who is working on a master’s degree at Fairleigh Dickinson University, told the committee.
“I think there needs to be more onus placed on the university to provide substantial academic advising,” he said. Yares suggested that colleges be required to provide every student with at least one session with an academic adviser each semester. That means schools need to hire or designate “substantially more academic advisers” and adopt a “coaching model” to help more students graduate in four years.
Currently, every college sets its own guidelines for student meetings with advisers, and there’s no easy way to tell what the schools require or suggest. Officials from several New Jersey colleges, including Rutgers University, did not answer requests to discuss any efforts they make to try to get students to graduate within four years.
An emphasis on academic advising is one reason why The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) has the highest four-year graduation rate for new, full-time students, of all public colleges in the state — almost 75% — and second highest rate of all New Jersey schools, behind only Princeton University, said the college’s president Kathryn Foster. All students get an academic faculty adviser, but the school also has a Center for Student Success where they can get additional help.
“They get personalized coaching and advising dedicated to the whole student development,” Foster said. “It’s a place you can get supplemental academic advising … I like to think of it like the Genius Bar of Apple. You can get your questions answered and you can get some real, real attention.”
Foster said TCNJ has “invested heavily” in the center and offers other kinds of student assistance.
At least one study suggests that greater spending on academic support services and core instruction would improve degree attainment. Another asserts that not providing students with enough guidance contributes to lengthier college careers or a failure to earn a degree at all.
“Uninformed decisions about a course of study can lead students to ‘spin their wheels,’ causing them to accumulate excess credits, extend their time to degree, or drop out altogether,” states a report from Complete College America. It suggests that academic advising, particularly in a student’s first year, increases success, and recommends that schools adopt “a culture that values academic success and career outcomes.”
‘Culture of commitment’ at TCNJ
Foster attributed TCNJ’s high graduation rate foremost to what she calls “a culture of commitment” that students will complete a degree in four years.
“Finish in four,” she said in summarizing the culture. “The goal here is to have a four-year experience, get out in four with a degree that matters. And I can’t even overemphasize how much that culture matters … It undergirds all of the other kinds of things I would tell you about what we do.”
For every year a student spends in college beyond the first four, it costs him in both additional tuition and expenses and in lost income. Another Complete College America report found that, nationally, each additional year it takes for a student to finish college cost an average $68,153 in 2014. Roughly a third of that was tuition, housing and other school-related expenses, and the rest was in lost wages. Today, that cost would be significantly higher, particularly for students at New Jersey private colleges, where tuition alone averaged close to $37,000 last year, according to the state higher education secretary’s office.
Cunningham, who chairs the higher education committee, indicated her commitment to trying to improve four-year graduation rates by making her bill the second one considered by the committee on Thursday.
The legislation, which got through the Senate in the last session only to stall in the Assembly, attacks the problem of the high cost of college in New Jersey from a different angle than lawmakers had focused on previously. They had success over the last two years in reforming the state’s student loan programs. They also tried, though came up short, to expand state merit scholarships, though that is an effort lawmakers could try to pass again in the new session.
“Attending college is a serious financial commitment,” said state Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic), a co-sponsor of the bill. “Pursuing a four year degree often leaves most young adults paying off student loans into their 30s and 40s. Having students graduate on time rather than in five or six years will help them pay significantly less for their education and alleviate some of the burden of decades-long debt.”