The April 15 Press editorial, "Controlling college costs/New ideas needed," focused appropriately on a timely, important topic, but it missed the mark regarding some of its assumptions and possible remedies.
The editorial is entirely correct that a college degree carries high value, not just in making more money during a lifetime, but also for an overall improved quality of life. Recent research indicates that this is true globally, not just in America. And it is correct, too, that the cost of college continues to rise, adding to the personal debt of students and families, and perhaps discouraging too many citizens from starting or completing college.
But the critical issue to recognize in looking for a remedy is not that students pay too much - rather, it's that they pay too big a share of college costs at public institutions, which 80 percent of all New Jersey students attend.
Two decades ago, with more robust state investment, students paid about 35 percent of educational costs, while the state paid about 65 percent. Today, the reverse is true. Students pay about 65 percent to 70 percent of educational costs, largely because of significant state disinvestment that shifted the burden to students and families. The state has pulled back so much from funding responsibilities that Richard Stockton College of New Jersey receives about the same state funding as it did about 10 years ago, placing greater pressure on tuition and fee increases and cost-containment practices. At the same time, enrollment at colleges, such as Stockton, has increased significantly, without state support.
Beyond public disinvestment, the major elements driving cost increases are state-mandated, but unpaid contractual costs for personnel, new technology and facilities. With this said, fixing the college-affordability challenge still rests largely with the colleges, in partnership with others. Blaming the state, or having high expectations for more state funding, are not the remedy. Neither, as the editorial suggests, will reining in administrative salaries lead to a solution. Salaries of college administrators are a relatively small part of the spending picture. A major portion of administrative costs is in providing student services - from residence-hall advisors to library stuff, police, and more.
The editorial very sensibly supports a study commission to review who New Jersey wants to educate in the 21st century, how we help pay for college, and what policy reforms at the state and campus levels are needed to achieve the goals of college access, affordability and completion.
Such a study is long overdue in New Jersey. Most institutions, including Stockton, would support it.
Stockton and its sister institutions are deeply involved in building partnerships to help improve college preparation, affordability and completion. Examples include dual-degree and reverse-degree programs with community colleges, collaboration with high schools to provide college-credit courses and teacher enrichment programs, and partnerships with businesses in the region on academic program offerings, internships and revenue-producing ventures.
Furthermore, through state and national collaboration initiatives, Stockton is deeply involved in finding solutions to the college affordability/completion challenge. For example, affiliated with the Hughes Center for Public Policy, the Higher Education Strategic Information and Governance program has at the heart of its activities identifying and advocating policy solutions on this matter. HESIG is tapping some of the best minds nationally and in New Jersey about college affordability, completion and value, and polling citizens as well to bring them into an informed conversation about workable ways to meet these challenges.
The search for solutions will not be found in blaming the state or the colleges for unfulfilled promises about college opportunity, or by hasty action on an unstudied legislative package of bills. To reduce the financial burden on students and families, colleges must take the lead in partnership with others, not only to constrain costs and reduce waste, but also to develop new means of delivering quality education and new business/financial practices, including student financial aid reform. On this front, too, Stockton is helping to lead statewide initiatives on new assessment tools tied to school completion and college readiness and has developed its own 10 "essential learning outcomes" to set explicit expectations about college outcomes.
Success means making informed choices among many competing public interests. Engaging citizens, policy makers, business leaders and others openly and honestly about shared responsibility for fulfilling the promise of college opportunity in New Jersey is the important first step in finding solutions.
Darryl G. Greer is the senior higher-education strategic information and governance fellow at the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.