State maps out student-focused higher education plan

At the center of the plan presented Tuesday by Gov. Phil Murphy and Higher Education Secretary Zakiya Smith Ellis is a 10-point student bill of rights.

Among its elements, every student should have the right to:

  • Early exposure to college;
  • Clear and comprehensible financial information;
  • Opportunities to earn credits outside the classroom;
  • Safe, supportive and inclusive campuses;
  • And a voice in decisions that affect their education

Murphy said higher education is essential to creating the innovation economy he’s always talking about. And while 48 percent of the current New Jersey workforce holds a college degree, he said, the state can do better.

“There is no reason why we cannot achieve our goal of 65 percent of all working age New Jerseyans holding a high quality credential or degree by the year 2025, that’s the so-called 65 by 25 plan that we are committed to,” Murphy said.

Hundreds of stakeholders turned out for the announcement in a Rutgers dorm and events building in downtown Newark.

Smith Ellis, who worked in the Obama Education Department, called the plan student-focused.

“They need to understand that college isn’t just the 13th grade. It’s a step toward a career and there are multiple pathways to those careers,” she said.

More than half a million students attend New Jersey’s 78 colleges and universities. Smith Ellis is asking their presidents to buy into the plan.

The last strategic plan for higher ed led to the 2010 reorganization of the state’s health care system. The watchword of this plan is equity, and one of its goals is getting students to graduate.

“Speaking of graduation, too few students actually make it to the finish line. This is a particular concern to our students of color, our first generation college students and our students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Only about half of black and Latino students end up graduating with a bachelor’s degree within six years. We have to do better,” Smith Ellis said.

Murphy wants to put $35 million into the plan — $20 million in new money and $15 million in redistributed funds. The funding would expand his free community college initiative and pay for increases in tuition assistance programs known as TAG and EOF.

Rutgers President Robert Barchi is on board.

“We have to make it affordable. We have to make it accessible. We have to make sure everyone knows how to get there. And more importantly we have to make sure students complete it. It doesn’t do any good to get students into our institutions and not get them out the other end,” Barchi said.

“A big part of our economic mission is to deepen higher education into the real economy,” Murphy said.

Every governor since McGreevey and before him has talked about stronger links between education and the real-world economy. Now it’s a new administration’s chance to turn that vision into a reality.