Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) included college affordability among their top priorities for the two-year session that began in January.
"There has been a focus, on a bipartisan basis, to raise the awareness of the critical investment, as well as the value added, for New Jersey's higher education," Sen. Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen) said during a budget hearing in April.
The cost of tuition and fees in New Jersey has exceeded national averages for more than two decades, with the gap widening in recent years. At the same time, the state has fewer colleges compared with the dozens elsewhere in the Philadelphia and New York City areas, making out-of-state options more attractive.
As a result of these and other issues, the state has a notorious brain drain: 30,558 New Jersey high school graduates enrolled in four-year colleges outside the state in fall 2010, while 23,552 stayed in the state, according to the most recent data from the federal National Center for Education Statistics.
Nationally, the issues came to a head after the recession, as states slashed higher-education funding to balance budgets, and public schools raised tuition and scaled back programs to compensate. President Obama has called for the United States to have the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.
"Higher-ed affordability is always an issue. . . . What's different this year is that because of the publicity surrounding the issues of student debt and the actual costs . . . it has a higher salience for the public," said Ben Dworkin, who heads Rider University's Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.
The leaders of New Jersey's Democratic-controlled Legislature have agreed to address the perennial buzzwords - affordability, accessibility, success - but the chambers are taking different approaches.
The Senate began by bringing back a bill passed unanimously last session, but vetoed by Gov. Christie as "redundant of current efforts," that would create a commission to study college affordability. The reintroduced proposal passed unanimously last month. Christie does not have to act until fall.
The Assembly is considering a 20-bill package with proposals including eliminating mandatory meal plans, developing free online textbooks, and creating tax deductions for interest paid on student loans.
Given the intricacies of higher education, Sweeney said, the state needs to study options first.
"Honestly, you know I'm not a patient person, but a little bit of patience is required in focusing on the issue in making sure that whatever we announce, this will work," he said last week.
That approach, he said, complements the package sponsored by Riley and Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D., Union). They are holding hearings at three schools to gather reaction.
"You'll have people coming from many different directions tackling this thing," Sweeney said. "We'll all come together with something, we always do. . . . What will come out at the end of the day, I'm not sure. But what I'm pretty confident in is what comes out will improve the system."
While Riley and her colleagues wait to see whether Christie will agree to Sweeney's commission this time, they have been pushing forward with their proposals, which also include bills addressing graduation rates, remedial education, and transfer agreements.
At a hearing Wednesday at Rowan University, Cryan engaged speakers who wanted to slow the deliberation of some bills.
"I don't want to sit here in two years and have some commission say, 'You know what, maybe we're going to do it this way.' These bills are a reflection of, frankly, the inertia," Cryan said.
The higher-education restructuring act that took effect last June drew attention to the state of public colleges, Riley said. The move, coupled with a "paradigm shift" in the job market to make bachelor's degrees more necessary, has given the Legislature added pressure to act, she said.
After hours of testimony at the first two hearings, Riley said, she was beginning to get a clearer picture of which proposals were viable and which may need to be scrapped.
Among the proposals she sees advancing is the establishment of a statewide "reverse transfer" system, where students who do not complete four-year bachelor's degrees can apply their credits toward associate's degrees at a community college. Riley also likes the idea of encouraging the development of dual enrollment programs for high school students to receive college credit at reduced tuition rates.
Riley also said she planned to push forward some measures that received a mixed reception, including a "tuition freeze," where students pay the same tuition for up to nine semesters.
She said she was rethinking other bills, including one that would have required schools to develop free online textbooks.
Riley also is considering taking back one of the most controversial bills, which would require closing four-year colleges that do not achieve a six-year graduation rate of at least 50 percent. Opponents have cited New Jersey City University, with a graduation rate in the mid-30s, as an example of an institution that cannot be held to a universal standard.
Different schools need flexibility to serve different populations, Riley acknowledged.
She doesn't expect all 20 bills to pass. That's all right, she said, because legislators have begun communicating about affordability and accessibility with college leaders.
"We're talking about it. They're listening," Riley said. "So what we're doing is creating the conversation that they need to hear."