Members of a national commission said Wednesday that college completion must become a priority on all college campuses if the United States is to remain a driving force in the new knowledge economy.

“If we do not increase the number of college graduates we risk the foundation of the American Dream,” said E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University and chairman of the National Commissioner on Higher Education Attainment, which released its report Wednesday.

Nationally, only 38 percent of freshmen who entered a four-year college in 2004 completed their bachelor’s degree in four years, according to U.S. Department of Education data. Just over 67 percent completed it in six years. At two-year public colleges, only about 30 percent of the 2007 full-time freshmen had earned their degrees within three years.

The report offers several recommendations for improving college completion rates, many of which local college presidents said they are already implementing.

“New Jersey is ahead of most of the rest of the country,” said George Pruitt, president of Thomas Edison State College, who served on the commission. “We’ve been focused on these issues for years.”

Pruitt said New Jersey has been able to implement programs because the colleges have individualized missions. Thomas Edison caters to working adults, and the community colleges and four-year colleges have programs targeting their populations.

“Higher education isn’t just 18-year-olds anymore,” Pruitt said. “The average age of my student is 40. There are more students over the age of 21 who attend college part-time than full-time.”

Data filed by the colleges show that almost 375,000 students attended some type of college in New Jersey in the fall of 2012, with 130,000 of them attending part-time. About 172,000 attend two-year public colleges, with just under half of them attending part-time.

“The older model of students going full-time, supported fully by parents, and completing their degrees in four years may not be realistic for some institutions, particularly those serving urban areas and with many non-traditional students,” said Richard Stockton College President Herman J. Saatkamp.

One recommendation is to better track the progress of all students. Currently the U.S. Department of Education only follows each cohort of full-time freshmen, so part-time and transfer students are not included in graduation rates.

Saatkamp said almost 2,000 students graduated from Stockton in 2012, but only about 500 were included in the graduation rate data collection.

He said Stockton’s flat-rate tuition program, which allows students to take 20 credits for the price of 16 each semester, has encouraged students to take more courses and graduate more quickly. The college has also provided more scholarships and financial aid to help students stay in college.

Students interviewed at Stockton said they have taken the 20-credit option at least some semesters. They suggested offering more sections of a course so they don’t get locked out of required classes, and requiring students to meet with preceptors who can help them plan their schedules and take the right courses.

Ramy Iskandar, 21, of Absecon said it will take him five years to graduate from Stockton because he transferred in from another college then took eight credits of courses that didn’t apply toward his finance major. He also works full time and can’t manage 20 credits.

“They should find a way to force students to meet with a preceptor right away rather than waiting until they’re in trouble,” he said.

Pruitt said students should be prepared to take on more responsibility for their educations, even if it means attending a less expensive college, and learning to ask for help.

“We all have to make choices in life,” he said. “We should be teaching students how to make informed choices.”

Atlantic Cape Community College began its Student Success Initiative as part of its strategic plan three years ago. The college will target its $9 million share of new higher education bonds to build a new Student Career and Success Center that will focus on career planning and counseling to keep students on track toward a goal.

“We will mandate that students set a career goal at the end of their first semester,” Atlantic Cape President Peter Mora said.

The report recommends making it easier for students to transfer credits. Atlantic Cape has an agreement with Stockton that allows students who start at the county college but transfer to Stockton before getting a degree to still get their associate degree when they earn enough credits at Stockton. Similar agreements with Rowan and Rutgers are planned.

One stumbling block is the high rate of remediation among college students, especially at community colleges, and what is seen as a growing gap in college readiness among high school graduates. Gee said the higher education and public school systems must be partners in creating a seamless education process.

Atlantic Cape has a six-year $270,000 per year federal GEAR UP grant to help high school and middle school students prepare for college, and offers dual enrollment that allows high school students to earn college credits for courses taken at their high schools or at the college.

The college is also piloting an accelerated program to help students finish their remedial work more quickly.

“We are very, very serious about this,” Mora said. “This involves everyone on campus.”

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241