N.J. legislators propose 20 higher-ed bills

Posted: March 22, 2014

TRENTON Democratic state legislators proposed 20 higher-education bills Thursday in New Jersey, a package designed to address perennial issues such as college affordability and graduation rates.

Proposals announced Thursday include the creation of a fixed-tuition system so tuition and fees remain unchanged through nine semesters of college, the development of a statewide data system tracking students from preschool through their entry in the workforce, and a requirement that colleges develop free online textbooks for students.

"We visited colleges throughout the state of New Jersey and basically came up with these bills as best practices," primary sponsor Celeste Riley (D., Gloucester) said in a conference call with reporters.

Now in her second term as chair of the Assembly's Higher Education Committee, Riley described the proposals as the result of two years of informal conversations.

"This is what we consider best practices, not only through the state of New Jersey," she said, "but all of the United States."

The package also includes the creation of performance-based guidelines for state funding, an audit of school fees, and the establishment of a state income-tax deduction for interest paid on student loans.

Riley and sponsor Joseph Cryan (D., Union) met with college presidents, faculty unions, and student groups as they devised the bills, which were introduced Thursday. Public hearings also are planned.

As a whole, Cryan said in the conference call, the package was designed to initiate a "holistic" debate about higher education in New Jersey.

Singling out the fixed-tuition proposal, Cryan said he expected it to raise eyebrows.

"We know it's going to create a debate. We think it's also a potential signature item for affordability," he said.

Some colleges and universities in other states have tested freezing costs so students pay the same amount each semester throughout their college years. The New Jersey proposal (A2807) fixes tuition and fees for nine semesters at four-year public or independent schools.

George Washington University, a private school in Washington, last month touted the success of its fixed-tuition plan, adopted in the 2004-05 academic year. The university held tuition increases close to inflation rates.

Public colleges and universities, however, such as Rutgers and Rowan, depend in part on state funding, which can fluctuate between years, leading to tuition increases to help cover the difference.

"I really put [fixed-tuition] under the category of flawed," said Daniel Hurley, a state policy analyst at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "It may make sense in the most generic level, but if there's one thing that making that commitment requires, it is predictable, stable, consistent state funding."

Some public schools report having made fixed-tuition work, such as University of Texas at Dallas and Illinois' public colleges. But others, including Georgia's public schools and Central Michigan University, have scuttled their plans.

Another bill (A2813) would require four-year public schools to achieve a six-year graduation rate of at least 50 percent for full-time undergraduates. Schools that did not achieve that benchmark - or those that did not make significant progress toward it - would be closed.

Rowan University spokesman Joe Cardona said the school was in no danger - its most recently reported graduation rate was 72 percent - but he hoped the conversation regarding student outcomes would examine each school individually.

"Different institutions have different missions," he said. It's really hard, for example, to compare the College of New Jersey with 1300-average SAT students to New Jersey City University, he said. New Jersey City University has a six-year graduation rate of 34 percent, according to data provided by Riley and Cryan.

Still, Cardona said, Rowan was "happy that Riley and Cryan are tackling this. . . . We're looking forward to helping them refine their thoughts."

Rutgers University released a statement Thursday saying it welcomed the opportunity to discuss ideas to improve, though it did not comment on specific legislation.

"The sponsors have worked closely with the university in the past, and we look forward to working with them on this package," the statement reads. "Certainly, introduction of the package is an important starting point for a broad discussion."

Also Thursday, a proposal to create a "College Affordability Study Commission" advanced in the Senate.

The panel would examine several proposals, including removing tuition altogether in favor of students paying back a percentage of their income after graduation.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) successfully pushed the measure - sponsored in the Assembly by Riley - through the Legislature last session, but it was vetoed by Gov. Christie.


jlai@phillynews.com

856-779-3220 @elaijuh

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