University and college presidents in New Jersey have made a misstep with an ill-conceived marketing plan (NJComeHome.com) to bring home students attending out-of-state colleges. It is not founded on sound educational principles; there is no state-level policy or money to support its promises. This quirky enrollment response to the COVID-19 crisis confuses trying to serve more students, with serving well those that we can in a restructured environment.
The NJComeHome “campaign” launched recently by 10 institutions is a poorly conceived marketing scheme designed to sustain enrollment during a time of crisis. Each president signed onto the plan, linked to college websites, excluding Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Rutgers, while not participating in this questionable promotion, stands out for its clear and compassionate communication about tuition, safety, staffing and educational restructuring plans and important public-health service during the COVID-19 crisis.
The obvious goal of the hastily launched effort is to recruit more students and to bring in more tuition and student financial-aid revenue, as institutions face a projected enrollment decline of 10% to 20% caused by the pandemic. The plan promises streamlined admission for almost any student with a “C” grade average transferring from an accredited out-of-state college. Additionally, it makes vague promises of student financial aid and participation in community service through the “NJ Scholars Corps.”
Pandering as a policy?
State leaders have worried about the annual net loss of about 30,000 students for decades, but no significant policy intervention has been launched successfully. A sudden promotion during the pandemic suggests that the colleges are pandering to students more than making a serious effort to stem student outmigration.
Students choose colleges for many reasons, including the tradition of deciding to go where peers and family members enrolled; perceived academic and student life quality; and personal and financial needs. Typically, students choose to go to a high-value institution that fits their educational and financial needs, usually within about 100 miles of home. Most who leave New Jersey for college stay in the Boston-Washington, D.C. corridor. Most don’t go far; they are already close to home.
The NJComeHome marketing scheme will not succeed for several reasons. The promotion lacks substantive Integrity, distracts from legitimate problems, and diminishes rather than adds public confidence, in the long run. The presidents will disagree and claim that this is a good-faith effort to help citizens during a terrible time, and that at worst, it does no harm. They are incorrect.
The incentive of a fast-tracked admission process is a dubious one, and may compromise existing academic policy, recommended by faculty and approved by boards of trustees. The presidents hedge the pledge of virtually instant acceptance, because not every academic credit will be accepted, especially in certain fields requiring certification, without faculty scrutiny. This will create more work for already strained staff and faculty to sort out individual cases, and disappointment for some students. Furthermore, it is doubtful that many students, already deeply committed to an institution elsewhere, will roll the dice to come home to New Jersey, if they chose to leave in the first place. It is more likely for them to wait to judge what actions their current college takes.
Student life in coming semesters
Even more important, it is very unclear what kind of academic and student-life programs the universities will offer next fall. What programs will be taught; what faculty will be involved; will classes be held face-to-face or remotely, with what kind of technology support? How many support staff will remain to serve students’ needs? How will students be housed; how will health risks be minimized? Why would a student committed to another institution transfer without knowing the answers to these questions?
Additionally, the pledge of opportunity to serve in the NJ Scholars Corp. is vague. This is a promise with no track record. There is no state policy or financial support behind it. Whatever this means will be left to each institution to craft.
The reality is that state government is facing an enormous service and financial crisis. State colleges and universities, already more dependent on tuition revenue than scarce state funding, will probably be cut dramatically in the coming state budget. Furthermore, the state, not the colleges, controls labor-contract agreements governing layoffs and furloughs, as budget management tools to weather significant revenue already lost. This is another big unknown for the universities that requires close coordination with Trenton leaders.
The leaders of these institutions need to focus squarely on critical strategic risk-management issues, not promotion schemes that may drain resources and confuse more than help a very difficult situation. Now is a time for clarity of educational purpose and making sound decisions that strengthen public trust in the universities.
In brief summary, this means making a comprehensive analysis of health, staffing, educational delivery, information technology and financial risks. At its heart, cogent decision-making requires transparent consultation with faculty and staff serving the institutions and clear communication with students and families, elected officials and surrounding communities. Boards of trustees are especially important partners that govern the universities and that support presidents and ratify policy. They are key to public accountability.
This is a time to refocus on core mission-related issues looking forward: how to deliver quality educational service and to how many. It may mean offering fewer programs to fewer students, with fewer faculty and staff; closing or selling some facilities; and reducing ambition for growth. It may mean building a stronger, smaller university, not necessarily a weaker one. The effective institutions that emerge from the current crisis will be those that make smart, difficult choices, and that sustain goodwill and public trust.
Public colleges and universities do not exist to serve themselves. They have diverse missions to serve not only educational goals but also the greater public good. We need them now more than ever to keep their eyes on this larger goal, and to fulfill the public trust placed in them.