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Outlook 2018: Insights on … higher education

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The world of education has exciting developments and legacy problems facing it in 2018. The emergence of cutting-edge technologies has created new fields such as data analytics, sustainability, entrepreneurship and STEM programs.

Other fields that don’t directly deal with new technology have been forced to adapt to new standards and procedures brought on by the rapid advancement of the modern world. New Jersey’s education institutions can only take advantage of these new trends if the old problems of underfunding and poor planning are addressed, experts say.

College and university presidents are optimistic about Gov.-elect Phil Murphy’s approach to problems that have plagued the industry for decades. NJBIZ spoke several to get their views on ongoing trends and potential opportunities in 2018. They include: Joel Bloom, president of New Jersey Institute of Technology; Susan Cole, president of Montclair State University; Eugene Cornacchia, president of Saint Peter’s University; Nariman Farvardin, president of Stevens Institute of Technology; George Pruitt, president of Thomas Edison University; Michael Smith, president of Berkeley College; and Kathleen Waldron, president of William Paterson University.

On the state of higher education:

George Pruitt: We’re in a society where technology is changing rapidly. The idea where you get a job [and] retire with a pension, that doesn’t exist anymore. College needs to train people to be productive people in society in an era where the world constantly changes. That’s what colleges and universities do. To suggest an 18-year-old is in a position to decide what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives is a mistake.

Kathleen Waldron: We recognize in our society that a college education and attainment of a degree or equivalent is essential for many more jobs — even at the entry level — than the past. Some professions are no longer [requiring just] a bachelor’s degree, but post-laureate degree.

Michael Smith: What’s the economic vibrancy of the market? That becomes a real challenge for us. Schools like [ours], it’s hyperfocused on lifetime career successes for its graduates. The implicit promise that if you come to us you’ll get an education, it’s important that students who are coming out of [our school] have the opportunity to be employed.

Nariman Farvardin: We have seen the disruptive impact of technology on many industries in recent years—think Uber’s impact on the taxi industry, iTunes’ and Netflix’s impact on music and entertainment, and Amazon’s impact on the retail industry.  Therefore, it would be naïve to think that the higher education industry would be immune from the impact of technology.  In my opinion, colleges and universities, like all organizations, need to focus on the value they provide for their stakeholders.  

Joel Bloom: If you’re going to be in higher education, there’s not a better focus than STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). You can’t think of a company that today is not first and foremost a technology company. Whether it’s an accounting firm, bank, manufacturing, clothing, textile — every company today is focused on tech. The demand for a technologically smart workforce far exceeds the supply.

Top concerns for 2018:

Pruitt: Increased investment in higher education. Rational basis for allocating public investment in higher education. Restructuring the TAG (Tuition Aid Grants) program so it empowers students and allows them to make their own choices.

Susan Cole: The state needs to create clear higher education priorities. A master plan in support of the state’s economic and social needs. It needs priorities. It needs to answer questions like how many students should be educated? What should it cost to educate a student? Who should pay that cost? Are we going to continue to put the cost on students and their families or is this understood as a public good that we need to subsidize by government? What fields of study are critical to New Jersey’s economy? What expertise do we want to build in New Jersey’s workforce?

Farvardin: Better alignment of the production of graduates with needs of the workforce. We need tighter coordination between the types of graduates college and universities are producing and the types of jobs corporations are trying to fill.

Waldron: College affordability.

Bloom: Recruiting more domestic full-time graduate students. Focusing on the high-demand fields. Diversifying the revenue for [our institution]; I can’t be so dependent on tuition and fees.

Eugene Cornacchia: Maintaining funding. Discussion about rewriting the rules for the TAG program, which is generous compared to other states. We always have to protect the amount of money going in. Not only so they don’t change the formulas but they put sufficient additional resources. If they don’t do that, then the amount of students will decline.

Smith: Financing of education, strength of the employment market for graduation and balancing the opportunities of technology and integrating it.

Affordability and state funding of higher education:

Cole: New Jersey absolutely has to create a coherent policy in regards to the funding of public institutions of higher education. There is no policy in place. The higher education community has been suffering with that for many decades through administrations from both sides of the aisle. We are at a moment in time when the state cannot continue in this ad-hoc way to move forward.

Pruitt: We only have two sources of revenue: tuition and appropriation, that’s it. If you look at the funding for Rutgers New Brunswick relevant to its peers, it is underfunded. Why is one school getting $4,000 per student and the other is getting $1,900 per student? Why do two schools, with similar missions, having vastly different levels of support?

Waldron: College is not affordable for many more people [today] than it was 10 years ago. Therefore savings are less. It means that students in college are working more hours while trying to go to college.

Cornacchia: We don’t have a strategic plan in education. That’s been lacking for eight to 12 years. We need to keep New Jersey competitive. New Jersey is the largest exporter of students to colleges. Where students go to the college is often where they end up staying and residing. There’s a brain drain in New Jersey.

Pruitt: If you look at enrollment, most institutions have doubled in size [from the 1990s]. You’re serving twice the amount of students with half the support. The consequence is it has driven up tuition. We have some of the highest public tuition in the country.

Bloom: There’s massive demand on state resources. I have to be concerned about state funding. I have to look at other revenue streams. Undergraduate engineering education programs are the most costly education in the United States.

Cole: No administration yet has put on the agenda the need to really build policy in this area. We just let it slip. The Legislature has let it slip. Governors have let it slip. They’ve done so because the higher education community has taken care of itself. It’s done well in some circumstances, but it is no way for the state to proceed. You cannot go that way indefinitely.

Farvardin: [Gov.-elect] Murphy has demonstrated that he is an ardent proponent of technology innovation as a driver economic growth for our state.  Therefore, we believe that economic development—particularly economic development fueled by technological innovation—will be a key priority in the Murphy administration.  

Free community college:

Pruitt: I think a lot of those initiatives are admirable. I think the challenge is going to be where the money comes to pay for them. I remember a day when [at] the City University of New York, tuition was free. Public universities in California were free. The reason it's not free today is because it wasn’t sustainable.

Waldron: [Murphy] started talking about free tuition, but when the math played out I think he backed away from that position. It is true that if you are low-income you could go to community college with federal and state grants if you’re going full-time. You can’t if you’re part-time. New York is finding that out. Most can’t go full-time. We’ll see how it works but they had 30,000 to 40,000 students apply under the program. … I don’t think finances work for the state.

Smith: This goes to a way of thinking that says college is a function of being able to get students into it. I would disagree with [that]. The theory is good but the practicality is not. It’s not about getting students into college, it’s getting them to be prepared to do college-level work. The tradition of high school graduate into college student, graduate four years later and get a job, that’s nontraditional now.

Bloom: I think it's a very good idea. The economics are always going to be a challenge. We need to give much more access to the lower socioeconomic students in the state of New Jersey or some form of postsecondary education.

Cornacchia: I don’t believe higher education should be completely free. If they don’t have some skin in the game they won’t take it seriously. On the other hand, there’s a population where community college is the best strategy.

Cole: I don’t know if the governor-elect intends to pursue that or not. I know that I did tell him and his advisors that if they repaired the TAG program, they would not have to build that program. It would take care of the problem of affordability in the community colleges.

TAG program:

Cole: The state invests around $426 million in its TAG program. That’s the most important issue in the state for supporting students’ access to higher education that goes to students, not institutions. The TAG program is in desperate, urgent need of reform. It is not working.

Pruitt: The problem with the TAG program is that most states that have those, they give the money to the student, the student goes to any school they want. [How much money we] give is contingent on what institution you go to. That needs to be rethought.

Pruitt: When the program was set up, they gave more tuition aid based on the tuition of the schools. The consequence is it’s an incentive to go the most expensive schools in the state.

Waldron: In the state of New Jersey, this state is not in good financial health. There’s fewer resources and more people vying for those resources. All those need to be rebuilt.

Student demographics:

(Traditional students are defined as high school graduates under the age of 25 who complete their four-year degree within four years. Nontraditional students are those who pursue higher education after the age of 25, attend school part-time and take longer to complete their degree.)

Pruitt: One of the other challenges we have is public policy based on a myth. The myth is that students graduate high school, go to college for four years and then get a job or graduate school. That's true for 30 to 40 percent. The majority are over the age of 25 going to school part-time. It’s an important distinction to make. … If you talk about a place [with traditional students], it’s a high quality institution, they can tell you about four-year graduation rates, but you’re not measuring the quality of the institution, you’re measuring their demographics.

Smith: We had upwards of 80 percent of students that were in that traditional mode. We knew the changes were coming. Much more of the college market is part-time. We’re glad to make the shift. [We were] a full-time institution where 80 to 90 percent [of students] were full-time. Our numbers dropped significantly, probably about 70 to 75 percent, over the past 10 years or so. We expect more and more of the market to become more of a part-time orientated market.

Cole: Our student population is still traditionally aged. Our students are full-time students and they are traditionally aged students. We do have some older students of course, we do have some part-time students, but by and large that’s not who we are serving. We are serving the traditional student.

Cornacchia: I think we have to be cognizant about how we reflect the populations we attract. We’re all under pressure for diversifying our workforce. Although our student is minority majority, our workforce is majority majority. We put a lot of attention in recruiting faculty and staff from the groups we serve. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of work but it's worth it.

Bloom: We hired 20 new faculty; we’ve hired 120 in the past six years. Of the 20, 11 were women. Within that eleven, five were minorities. That is rare. How many young, female or African-American physicists do you think graduate from college universities? We’re still talking about fingers and toes. We’re working on it, it’s in our strategic plan. When I came here in 1990 it was 60 percent white male. That’s now 38 percent. There is no majority in the student body. We’re slowly chipping away at the faculty. It’s important but it’s not critical. It won’t stop a student from going here.

Farvardin: This growth of minority populations, in New Jersey and nationwide, necessitates innovative approaches to ensuring that all members of our diverse society have equal opportunity and access to a college education. The challenge is particularly acute at STEM-oriented institutions such as [our school]. For example, nationwide, according to statistics compiled by the National Science Foundation, Whites earned 62 percent of all science and engineering degrees in 2013, while Blacks earned about nine percent and Hispanics earned about 11 percent. Increasing the number and percentage of underrepresented minority students in STEM study and careers is a critical national priority and a strategic goal for [our school].

Cole: We’ve also seen tremendous growth in African-American and Asian student populations. As an institution, [we’ve] always been highly diverse. It’s not so much we have to struggle to attract these students, the students are coming. This new demography is coming to the institution, [and] that of course is a good thing. What we need to do is [ask] how we are serving them? Are we providing them with the educational programs and services they need to succeed?

Outlook 2018:

Majors on the rise:

Smith: Much higher entrepreneurial interest. They’ve seen the instability of workplaces.

Cole: Rapidly growing interest in entrepreneurship. This is an exciting one to watch and we’ve been investing in it specifically. Not just those studying business, but all disciplines are interested in entrepreneurship. The younger generations out there are more excited by the idea of creating their own enterprise, creating their own business, realizing their own concepts, then they are about going to work for a major corporation.

Cornacchia: We’re seeing business is going to continue to grow strong. I think we’re going to see more and more people looking for STEM majors. I don’t think that’s going to change.

Bloom: Computing. We were below 1,000 students in computer science five to six years ago. Now we’re closing in on 2,000 students. It’s doubled.

Farvardin: Computer science and cybersecurity [have] been growing rapidly over the last several years. Within this area, machine learning and artificial intelligence are rapidly-evolving fields that offer tremendous opportunity for our students.

Waldron: In the last three years we’ve seen students move into psychology, criminal justice, communications and business. Criminal justice became popular after “CSI” appeared on television. Also after 9/11. Now there’s a big emphasis on technology and science. 

This story has been updated from the print edition to include Nariman Farvardin's responses, President of Stevens Institute of Technology.

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Arthur Augustyn

Arthur Augustyn

Arthur Augustyn grew up in Massachusetts and previously covered the video game industry in Los Angeles, city politics in Malibu, California, and local news in Bergen County before working at NJBIZ. He currently covers cannabis, government and tech.

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