To make college affordable, help students graduate faster, N.J. panel says

A college degree in New Jersey is too expensive and often takes too long to complete, and many families have little understanding of the full cost and options available.

That's the picture painted by a report released this week by a panel created by the Legislature to study college affordability in New Jersey.

The College Affordability Study Commission made 20 recommendations, grouped under two general ideas: Decrease the time it takes to earn a degree, and increase students' financial literacy and financial aid options.

"Despite clear evidence that higher education is a valuable investment, its increasing cost poses a formidable barrier for students and their families. This is especially true in New Jersey," the report says, "where tuition costs at the public four-year institutions of higher education are the fourth highest in the nation."

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Higher Education Committee Chair Sandra Cunningham (D., Hudson) said Wednesday that they would introduce 11 bills after the recommendations of the commission.

Recommendations to reduce the time needed to obtain a degree include several that would reshape a bachelor's degree program: expanding dual enrollment for high school students; creating "3+1" programs where community colleges offer a third year; developing three-year baccalaureate programs; and giving students college credit for nonacademic work experience.

Financial literacy recommendations include teaching about financial-aid programs as a high school graduation requirement, offering more financial literacy events at assemblies and parent-teacher conferences, and requiring high school guidance counselors to take courses on financial-aid planning.

"Low levels of financial literacy may contribute to promising students' not completing their degrees, or, worse, never even enrolling," the report reads. "The process can be overwhelming, even more so for first-generation students or students from low-income families with little to no experience in higher education."

The commission also recommends restructuring the NJ STARS scholarship program, expanding it to include more students and offering more options for students at the top of their high school class.

"There's no question that this report speaks directly to the important role community colleges can play, do play, and will continue to play in making higher education affordable," said Jake Farbman, spokesman for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.

Adoption of the recommendations faces a major challenge: money. State funding for colleges has decreased over the years, exacerbating the very affordability crisis being studied.

"The College Affordability Study Commission rightly pointed out the critical connection between state funding to the public four-year colleges and universities and the tuition and fees at those institutions," Michael Klein, CEO of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, said in a statement. "The key to keeping a college education affordable for all students at the public four-year institutions of higher education in New Jersey is sufficient, predictable, and sustained state investment in those institutions."

In its report, the commission calls on the state to restore funding lost since the fiscal year starting in July 2007, using that money to fund the recommendations.

That kind of large financial commitment from the state would require political backing from prominent lawmakers.

"I'm going to absolutely put whatever political skills I have to getting this passed," Sweeney said. "This is not partisan."

The commission has its roots in a package of bills introduced in 2014. That year, Sweeney pushed for the creation of the panel, which had 10 members and was chaired by Frederick Keating, president of Rowan College at Gloucester County.

Commission member Tim Haresign, a biology professor at Stockton University, issued an accompanying minority report, arguing that the recommendation in support of 3+1 programs was misguided because those programs dilute quality of instruction, dismantle carefully arranged curriculums and academic programs, and decrease transfer options.

"We have to weigh cost savings vs. quality of education," he said.

Haresign also called on the state to increase higher education funding and consider increased oversight over college administrations.

Citing Stockton's Showboat casino purchase fiasco and Kean University's purchase of a nearly $250,000 conference table, Haresign said administrations have little accountability.

"Even more troubling is the fact that at some institutions, the rate of growth in management positions exceeds the rate of growth in full-time faculty positions," Haresign wrote, "which raises questions about the educational priorities of the institution."

Sweeney said he and Cunningham would introduce the bills Thursday.

"We've got a good package of bills that makes sense," said Sweeney, who is expected to run for governor. He said the proposed laws have "nothing to do with" his plans.

Sweeney has scheduled another event Thursday at Stockton University to discuss the report and tout the university's dual-enrollment programs.

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