Assembly gets an earful on improving public higher education

Posted: May 30, 2014

Public higher education in New Jersey badly needs changes to become more affordable, accessible, and successful, legislators were told Wednesday during a hearing at Rowan University.

Over 2 hours and 45 minutes, members of the Assembly's higher-education committee listened to students, administrators, and a faculty union president, all of whom agreed it was right for the Legislature to tackle reform of the state's public higher-education system.

But their solutions varied, in some cases opposing legislators' proposals or urging caution. Assemblywoman Celeste Riley (D., Cumberland), the chair of the committee, and Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D., Union) in March proposed a 20-bill package seeking to mandate a series of changes to colleges and universities.

The Rowan hearing was the second of three to receive public input on the legislation, after a hearing two weeks ago at the College of New Jersey. The third hearing will be June 11 at Hudson County Community College.

"There are things that I feel like, as a legislative body, that we can do today, to actually move forward in a positive fashion," Riley said, "showing that we are in support of not only decreasing the cost of college, but also increasing the success of the students."

Ali A. Houshmand, the president of Rowan University, was the first speaker to testify before the committee, spending an hour to describe his efforts at Rowan and to field questions from the panel, which was rounded out by Samuel Fiocchi (R., Cumberland), Gabriela Mosquera (D., Gloucester), Paul Moriarty (D., Gloucester), and Nancy Pinkin (D., Middlesex).

"Higher education, and how you fix the challenges that we face, is strategically important," Houshmand said, citing the example of cybersecurity as a specialized field that will require higher education.

Rattling off numbers, Houshmand told stories of Rowan students who accumulated debt while taking remedial courses, changing majors, or dropping out without finishing a degree.

Some solutions will be localized, he said, such as overhauling academic advising and reaching out to students who had dropped out just shy of a degree. But others were more systemic, including the dearth of college options in South Jersey.

There are 100 citizens for every spot in a college in South Jersey, he said. That ratio is 30-1 nationally, he said, drawing an audible "Wow" from Riley.

Houshmand said he supported a bill (A2802) that would create a "reverse-transfer" structure for students at four-year colleges to apply their credits toward receiving an associate's degree, in the event they do not complete a bachelor's.

"We need to get away from this nonsense of elitism and looking down on county colleges," he said, going on to describe Rowan's agreement with Gloucester County College, which gives GCC students the option of guaranteed transfer to Rowan if they successfully complete a set program at the community college.

"The price is a hell of a lot less expensive," Houshmand said.

Cryan questioned Raymond Yannuzzi, the president of Camden County College, and Lawrence A. Nespoli, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, about setting standards for remedial education and graduation rates.

One of his bills (A2804) would require county-college presidents to develop plans to graduate a third of their students.

When Yannuzzi and Nespoli described the "Big Ideas Project" the council undertook in 2010 and 2011 as an example of the work being done to find best practices, Cryan pushed back:

"I'm tired of waiting for the next big idea," he said.

"The time for academia and the big theory is over, and the time for results is here, because we've had it."

Ten students were the last to testify on a series of issues.

"Right now, New Jersey is in a higher-education crisis.," said Jalina Wayser, a Rowan student studying political science and sociology. "Students are being shut out of higher education, and it's not acceptable."

The students, most from the New Jersey United Students advocacy group, criticized the legislators for not better incorporating student voices into the creation of the bills.

"We do not want to be simply the students yelling outside the building, we do not simply want to be the students coming and sitting at the table in front of the microphone," said Justin Habler, who graduated this month from Rutgers-New Brunswick. "We want to be the students that are working with you, not only outside, but inside as well."

The legislators nodded, with Riley responding that she was open to working with them as the legislation advanced.

Mosquera, a first-generation college graduate and immigrant raised by a single mother from Ecuador, had a message in particular for Joyce Marquez, a Rutgers student in the Educational Opportunity Fund program, and Edgar Trinidad-Mendez, a student whose college dreams have been put on hold because of his status as a "DREAMer" who had not come to the United States legally.

"When I see you, I see myself," Mosquera said.

"As a Latina, to you, both of you, I am so proud of you. And please just move forward and never give up," she said.

"Being an American, being an American citizen living in this country, it's all about opportunity and taking advantage of every single thing," she said. "And I just want to say that we hear you, and we want to be here for you."


jlai@phillynews.com

856-779-3220

@elaijuh

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