State-level policy on higher education is headed in the wrong direction because of a misguided focus on student outmigration, “free college” and interest in statewide student marketing. Instead, we should focus on policy that does a better job educating and graduating the students we currently serve.
Like Don Quixote, the state is tilting at windmills by chasing historical student outmigration. Free college is an empty promise that misunderstands student markets, and will not help middle-class families, much less keep more students here. Furthermore, a statewide marketing effort will be ineffective in influencing who goes to which college in New Jersey.
We need to keep talented college graduates in state. But reversing the state’s net loss of about 30,000 college-bound students each year is a lost cause. We have led the nation in this regard for decades and will continue to do so, largely because of the modest scope of public higher education here, contrasted to other states. New Jersey ranks about 40th in college capacity — seats per 1,000 citizens.
During the past two decades, four-year universities increased enrollment and residential capacity by about 25 percent. Still, the number of high school graduates leaving the state remains largely unchanged. Since about 1970 we added three new public colleges — Thomas Edison (for adults), Ramapo, and Stockton, and expanded community colleges. Add to this the recent expansion of Rowan and Montclair as comprehensive universities, without much progress on the outmigration dilemma.
We have only held our own as the student population increased significantly during 1995-2008 by adding more spaces. We would have to build another comprehensive university the size of Rutgers (or expand others) to make a larger difference in outmigration.
Currently, like several surrounding states, New Jersey is experiencing a decline in the number of high school graduates, which will continue into the next decade. Keen interstate competition for well-prepared students, who can afford to leave the state — and limited capacity here — dooms to failure fixing outmigration. Instead, policy should focus on providing colleges with incentives to upgrade academic programs, add more internship opportunities, and more intensive counseling and advising services to help more students complete degrees in a timely manner.
Free college is another well-meaning, but misguided initiative. In practice, it will not affect most middle-class families; it will not help many more students afford college; and it will not help the outmigration problem. As a “last dollar” student financial aid program, it will give low-income students extra help to pay for community college only after all available state and federal grant dollars are exhausted. The program has income limits, too, above which middle-income families will not benefit.
Furthermore, the program ineffectively pushes students into relatively affordable community colleges. Most of New Jersey’s two-year colleges are very good at providing part-time instruction, training and community service. But they are principally not in the baccalaureate degree business. Students who complete 30 or more hours of college-level studies and who transfer to traditional four-year colleges do well educationally.
The irony is that too few students who start at community colleges have a baccalaureate aspiration leading to transfer in the first place, and even fewer complete the AA degree. Using more student financial aid at community colleges as a fulcrum for four-year degree completion is an inefficient way to graduate more students, as well as to keep more students in state.
Finally, the last thing that New Jersey needs to help more citizens complete college is a superficial statewide marketing plan, announced by the state Presidents Council, and encouraged by business associations.
Students are attracted to individual colleges, not to statewide “systems.” College markets are well defined and are local and regional. Roughly 80 percent of all college students nationally and in New Jersey attend a public college within their state of residence, within fewer than 100 miles of home. While each generation of students deserves to know that college choices are available, especially first-generation students, new immigrants, and adults seeking a first or second chance, a statewide generic marketing plan for college, here, is a folly, especially given these facts about choice and capacity.
Marketing plans to attract students are better accomplished by the institutions themselves. Research indicates that a better strategy for attracting and graduating students is to create quality educational programs tied to state workforce needs and students’ interests, and to be accountable for accomplishing mission-related goals. Colleges need to invest more, not only in recruiting students, but in educational and advising services tied to practical workforce experiences, that lead to explicit knowledge and skills, and desired outcomes identified by students and employers. This not only benefits students, it benefits the state and leads to greater public trust in the value of higher education.
These policy initiatives driven by conventional wisdom miss the mark. They need to be replaced with policy that helps students and colleges achieve clearly defined outcomes that serve individuals and the public good.