In an effort to control costs and improve graduation rates, state legislators on Thursday introduced a package of 20 bills that would require New Jersey public colleges to do more to help students graduate on time and with less debt.
Assembly Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Celeste Riley, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, said the bills represent best practices compiled during visits to colleges and meetings over the past two years.
The bills address six areas: student readiness for college, completion rates, cost, data collection, college accountability and creating student pathways to success.
Co-sponsor Joseph Cryan, D-Union, said they expect a lot of discussion and debate. Hearings will be scheduled throughout the state to get input.
“Our intent is to provide a specific set of proposals for debate,” he said.
Among the proposals are a tuition freeze that would keep a student’s tuition and fees the same for a maximum of 10 consecutive semesters, rather than potentially increasing each year. Another bill would provide an income-tax deduction for student-loan interest.
Colleges would be pressured to improve graduation rates. One bill would allow for the closing of a four-year public college that did not have a six-year graduation rate of at least 50 percent. William Paterson, Kean and New Jersey City universities are currently at or below that rate.
Higher education officials applauded the state interest in higher education but said the proposals would require discussion, and pointed out that some are already being done. They also want more discussion on the state’s role in supporting the proposals financially.
“What’s encouraging is that we’ve already been working on some of these issues since 2008,” said Jacob Farbman, spokesman for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.
Specific county college proposals include improving the graduation rate to at least 33 percent, establishing an N.J. School Counts Scholarship program modeled after one at Cumberland County College and setting up reverse transfer agreements that would guarantee students in a four-year college could transfer credits to a two-year college.
Atlantic Cape Community College President Peter Mora said his school is addressing student readiness and completion through its Student Success Initiative. Atlantic Cape and Richard Stockton College also established a dual-degree transfer agreement in 2012 that allows students to earn credits from both colleges.
Paul Shelly, spokesman for the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, or NJASCU, said he would be concerned about possible unintended consequences if the bills could limit access to college for some students.
“It’s a big package of bills,” he said. “And the public is concerned about affordability and debt. But we will have to look at each bill’s impact.”
Darryl Greer, senior higher education strategic information and governance fellow at Stockton’s William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy, said the issues in the bills are already being discussed statewide and nationally. He commended the sponsors for taking on a huge issue but said discussions should be held to see just how those issues are addressed.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a packet of bills as comprehensive as this,” said Greer, a former director of NJASCU. “And they are headed in the right direction. But I hope they are open to the idea that some things can be accomplished without legislation.”
He said the Legislature must also address what the state’s role will be in funding higher education in the future.
“We have to identify the responsibilities of all parties, the state, the colleges and the students and their families,” Greer said. He cited the tuition freeze bill as an example of a situation where the state role is crucial.
“If the state can’t appropriate more than a year at a time, then the colleges can’t plan either,” he said.
A separate bill sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney would set up a College Affordability Task Force to look at options to control college costs, including a “pay-it-forward” proposal that would let students pay for college after they graduate by paying back a portion of their income. The task force bill passed the state Legislature last year but was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie as being duplicative of work already being done by other state agencies and state colleges. The bill was reintroduced this year.
Greer said he looks forward to public hearings on the bills.
“This is a good conversation to have,” he said. “We should talk about who gets to go to college and how do we help them pay for it.”
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