New Jersey is committing to becoming the most educated state in the country.
Under the banner of “65 by ‘25: Many Paths, One Future,” New Jersey officials announced a plan to have nearly two-thirds of state residents by 2025 complete some kind of education or training after high school.
Officials described the goal of “65 percent post-secondary educational attainment” during a joint conference featuring officials from the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education, the Department of Education, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Lumina Foundation, a private company focused on education in the U.S.
The attainment level is a metric used to measure the share of state residents who have completed some kind of post-secondary or higher education.
New Jersey is one of the best educated states in the country, but even with an average that is above the national norm, there are worrying statistics that suggest uneducated workers will be left behind.
Since the recession, “11.6 million jobs were created; of those new jobs 11.5 million went to people with post-secondary credentials,” Lumina’s president and CEO, Jamie Merisotis, said at the conference, held at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton.
That statistic, among countless others, served as a “killer fact,” as Merisotis called it, a piece of information that revealed the importance of educating residents past high school.
New Jersey has plenty of its own “killer facts” that show how the high average for the state overall hides educational inequality.
Although the state average for educational attainment sits at 50 percent, several points above the national average of 47 percent, that number is the product of high-performing counties making up the difference for others that fall behind.
On the high end, Morris and Somerset have more than 300,000 residents each and an average attainment over 61 percent. Other parts of the state, like Ocean and Passaic, have more than 500,000 residents each but attainment rates in the mid-30s.
In addition to geographical divides, racial divides are also apparent. Fifty two percent of whites in New Jersey have an associate degree or higher, compared to roughly 30 percent of blacks and 24 percent of Latinos.
“[Ethnic disparities] are not just morally unacceptable, they are economically unviable,” Merisotis said, pointing out that the populations with the lowest level of attainment in the state are also the fastest growing.
With the economy dramatically changing its preferences in workers in recent years, the 65 by ‘25 program is structured around eight “cornerstones of success” that allow multiple pathways to higher education outside of the classic four-year bachelor’s degree. [See sidebar]
“To me it’s not an either/or situation,” Commissioner for the Department of Labor and Workforce Development Aaron Fichtner said. “You have this debate about everyone should get a four-year degree [or] no one should get a four-year degree — the reality is we need to find more creative paths to get people more education after high school.”
Associate degrees, apprenticeships, work programs and credit stacking are all strategies suggested to give students multiple opportunities to enhance their education while also offering reentry to adults who have left educational institutions. Credit stacking refers to earning credits from multiple educational institutions on the way to a degree.
Part of this approach is informed by data that show the “typical college student” strays from the stereotype. Fewer than 10 percent of college students are fresh out of high school, dorm on campus and attend school full-time. Roughly 38 percent of college students are over the age of 25, and 40 percent of college students attend a part-time job in addition to schooling.
The trend of students working part-time while pursuing education may be an indication that the affordability of education may be the biggest obstacle to achieving higher attainment rates.
But “affordable” has been a nebulous term for the education world. Various tools are used to bring down expensive tuitions, such as financial aid and scholarships, while other tools, such as online courses, help institutions lower costs. In many ways, affordability is the elephant in the room for every discussion about educational improvements. Even if efforts are made to improve the quality of education attained, many residents can’t afford to make it a part of their life.
“A rising tide lifts all boats, but in the modern economy you’ve got to have a boat for it to be lifted,” Merisotis said.
“For too many people, they don’t have that boat. They don’t have the underpinning to be successful.”
Lumina Foundation awarded a $100,000 grant to kick off the lifting tide in New Jersey, but the conversation around improving the state’s education is one that will continue for years.