Op-Ed: Biden’s American Families Plan gives opportunity to NJ higher education

Why New Jersey should grab that opportunity
Darryl G. Greer

President Biden’s plan to invest billions of dollars to support families and higher education, provides the state with a unique opportunity to build a stronger and more prosperous New Jersey. We should step up to meet the challenge.

The American Families Plan proposes among other things, $109 billion to make two years of community-college education free, $85 billion to increase the maximum Pell Grants that colleges award, and $62 billion to strengthen retention and completion rates in degree programs. It invests not only directly in colleges, schools, and teachers, but also in families to support health, nutrition, early childhood, and workforce programs that support achievement and economic security.

No doubt the ambitious plan will encounter vigorous debate in Congress about its substance and taxes to pay for it. Even so, parts of the plan, related to the popular idea of providing “free” community college and more need-based student financial aid to help students afford and complete college, have a good chance to be adopted.

As our leaders join this important and historic debate, there are many critical policy issues to consider in fulfilling the plan’s promise, including:

Examine who will go to college, why and where

The traditional-age population going to college for the next decade will be bimodal. It will be younger, made up of first-generation immigrants and racial minorities on one hand, and older adults on the other. Each group will have special needs. Pushing more students into “free” community colleges — most of which are already free to low-income students — will not produce alone the educational and workforce outcomes citizens and the economy need.

New Jersey needs to do more to help guide diverse students toward successful outcomes tied to K-12 preparation, college academic readiness and career interests; and for adults returning to college, job markets and skill enhancements needed for employment. Most students attend college regionally, close to home. Local educational approaches within a statewide plan will be the key to success in helping students complete programs at two-year and four-year colleges.

Refocus on mission differentiation

New Jersey needs to do more to differentiate missions among community and state colleges, and research universities. Each college’s mission should be sharpened from an outcomes perspective to help students enroll in the right college in the first place, considering a rapidly changing population and global economic demands. The state should provide incentives for each college to invest in targeted, high-quality degree programs to meet public needs, within its mission and service area.

Providing more money to colleges to improve what they already do will not be enough. For example, students and employers agree on top skills — writing, communications, problem-solving — needed to succeed in college and in the workplace. But colleges do not provide enough practical experiences through internships beyond professional programs (e.g., health, education) to prepare students adequately. The answer based on my statewide research is to require much more intensive academic advising and career counseling to reduce time to graduation, as well as more internships tied to studies.

Build a stronger budget rationale for funding higher education

The state has no viable rationale for what it spends on higher education, beyond generous student aid and educational opportunity funding. Even with a new state plan adopted a few years ago, the state funds higher education annually, unlike a formula for K-12, based on what it can afford.

One of the problems with the “free college” concept — New Jersey already has one in place — is that it fails to provide a foundation for funding much of what colleges must pay for beyond tuition revenue, such as facilities, technology, and salaries. It provides aid to low-income students and families that substitutes for them paying tuition and fees. But it does not add new money to pay for the basic budget items to run the college, such as buildings, laboratories, computers, and administration to sustain the enterprise. This issue must be tackled if colleges are to succeed.

Fix accountability for investment and quality outcomes

Together with a strong budget rationale for public colleges, the state must define why it is spending the money in the first place. Historically, this largely has been left up to the colleges themselves, evidenced by the evolution of county colleges into broader community colleges, the state colleges into more comprehensive regional universities, and Rutgers University into a comprehensive biomedical research university.

The universities must be accountable partners with the state in meeting educational expectations of students and employers. This means much more clarity is needed from colleges to define learning outcomes and to improve quality and degree productivity. This requires tying together academic and practical education, regularly assessing student skill attainment, measuring learning outcomes, and evaluating what happens to students after graduation.

Define college value to win public trust

Perceived value is a factor not just of price and affordability, but also of quality of outcomes. There has been too much debate for too long about what citizens pay for college — most students pay much less, and with much less debt, than is reported in media. Colleges need to work harder, actively to define the benefit of going to college beyond expected jobs and salaries after graduation.

Higher learning has measurable societal value beyond jobs and earnings. Every society globally, regardless of structure, has better health care, nutrition, family stability and prosperity with more education. If America is to compete globally in this century, it follows that a more educated population is a good investment. This does not mean that everyone should attend college. It means that colleges and other partners need to do more to define and account for the investment. This will create public trust and win the political support colleges need to succeed in the long run.

Connect investment and value to the larger long-run agenda

One of the advantages of President Biden’s proposal is that it provides a foundation for debate about issues linked to a prosperous America beyond college opportunity itself. It links educational opportunity to issues of health, housing, childhood nurturing, jobs, and community security.

New Jersey colleges, principally focused on educational and related services to students and communities regionally, can do more to marry educational and public service contributions to a broader statewide agenda, such as health care, the environment, civil justice, and transportation.

Colleges will have to be less parochial, build more partnerships, and have a broader strategic vision of service within an educational framework that engages statewide needs, and ways to measure success, just like any business. That requires taking more risks, not fewer; and placing the achievement of multiple goals simultaneously at the center of planning. It means improving the quality of boards of trustees, presidential leadership, and more state-level analytical capacity (not regulatory) in the office of the Secretary of Higher Education to strengthen governance, planning, administration and assessment.

Admittedly, this is a lot to accomplish. It will take leadership, in addition to more money. And it will take active engagement of citizens to win lasting support. Let us grab the opportunity, do the hard work, and make New Jersey a national beacon for important change in higher education that serves individual accomplishment, the public good and broader prosperity in the Garden State.

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