NJ Spotlight

Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis at the annnouncement Tuesday of a new plan for higher education in NJ


For the first time in more than 13 years, New Jersey has a plan for improving higher education in the state. It includes enhancing college affordability, creating work opportunities, ensuring safe and supportive campuses, and prioritizing student voices in decision-making processes. And university professors and faculty members are prepared to strike to see these goals reached.

Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis and Gov. Phil Murphy have released a new “student-centered vision” for higher education in New Jersey that they say will not only make college costs more transparent and improve life on campus for students across the state, but will also help keep talented young people living and working in New Jersey. The goal, Murphy said, is to achieve the target set by former Gov. Chris Christie of “65 by ‘25” — meaning that 65 percent of working New Jerseyans will have earned a college degree or certification by 2025.

“Today, New Jersey’s great colleges and universities set course to make our state the hub for American innovation and economic opportunity,” Murphy said at the announcement at Rutgers, Newark on Tuesday. “This goal is nothing short of reclaiming our state’s mantle as the global leader in innovation and I firmly believe that anyone can find their place in that economy.”

The plan — which comes with no price tag — lays out a “Student Bill of Rights,” a set of 10 commitments that they say should be provided to every student in the state. Those rights include fee-free college-prep programs for highschoolers, partnerships between colleges and the state to meaningfully reduce higher education costs, and a network of support for students to make sure they graduate.

As part of the proposed budget for higher education within his fiscal year 2020 budget, Murphy has earmarked $35 million to pilot a new state aid funding formula for higher education based on student outcomes — such as how many underrepresented minority students are earning degrees, how many low-income students are getting financial aid, and how many students graduate in total.

Of that, $20 million will be new higher education operating aid funding and $15 million will be a redistribution of the current operating aid funding, according to the Murphy administration.

Colleges must get with the program

To claim that new funding, colleges would have to officially commit to the principles of the new state plan; adopt a “Financial Aid Shopping Sheet” laying out the costs for all undergraduate students; participate in discussions about the future of funding with the Secretary of Higher Education; and report back with detailed information about their program spending “to inform future iterations of the funding rationale.”

The administration also plans to increase funding for its tuition-free community college grant program from $25 million to $58.5 million, increase aid to the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) by an additional $2.25 million, and increase Tuition Aid Grants by $5.03 million.

“A strong relationship will pave the road for colleges and universities to ensure that students are graduating with the skills necessary to be the strong job candidates that employers are seeking. Solid job candidates also will reinforce New Jersey’s talented workforce, a competitive advantage in our state’s efforts to persuade companies to relocate and expand in the Garden State,” Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Tom Bracken said in a statement.

What exactly is in the plan?

The 10 “rights” laid out in the plan are:

  • “Early exposure to college” — allowing middle and high schoolers to take college-level courses and expanding partnerships between colleges and grade schools;

  • “Clear and comprehensive financial information” — instituting an easy-to-read “shopping sheet” of all associated college costs so parents and students can compare financial aid packages across multiple schools;

  • “Affordable and predictable education costs” — expanding the free community college tuition program and finding more state funding for universities;

  • “Experiential learning opportunities” — making apprenticeships and internships accessible and integral for every college student;

  • “Supportive faculty and staff ” — providing professional development opportunities and faculty diversity initiatives;

  • “Support for on-time college completion” — making sure that credits transfer between schools and programs and creating support networks for struggling students;

  • “Opportunities to earn college credit outside the classroom” — giving credit for adult learners and students who come to college having prior job or military experience;

  • “High quality academic programs” — ensuring courses are relevant to the current and future job market;

  • “Safe, supportive and inclusive campuses” — advocating for more diversity centers and programs to make students from all backgrounds feel welcome at school.

  • “Student voice” — Urging administrators and policymakers to engage students and give them a seat at the table during discussions.

“This vision for a student Bill of Rights will set New Jersey apart,” Smith Ellis said. “It will give us a bold statement to share with families who are thinking about sending their students to college outside of the state and it will give some people a reason to consider New Jersey for college.”

No big changes overnight

The 41-page document sets expansive and ambitious goals but the secretary conceded that the rights “are not self-executing” and will not “happen overnight.” Smith Ellis noted that within a week of taking her post as secretary, she was inundated with requests for such a plan as previous administrations had for over a decade not provided similar guidance.

What’s more, colleges and institutions of higher learning are expected to commit to upholding these values if they want to receive more funding from the state. Smith Ellis said she has received positive feedback from university leaders like Rutgers president Robert Barchi.

“I'm eager to work with the Governor and the Secretary to expand the mission ... into a strategic plan that’s actionable with specific goals, defined initiatives, and clear outcome measures and more importantly, a timeline for implementation,” Barchi said. “It's a huge opportunity for us.”

Strike by professors could be in offing

But at Rutgers, and at universities nationwide, professors have been fighting for many of these same changes and have made slow progress.

Just this past week, 88 percent of members represented by the American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) at Rutgers authorized their union’s leadership to call a strike if contract negotiations continue to be stalled. They have been engaged in tense negotiations with Barchi’s administration for months as they petition for pay equity, an improved student-to-faculty ratio, more diverse staff, and secure contracts.

“If we do strike, we will be striking for the agenda of the Governor and the Secretary of higher education as expressed in this plan,” Rutgers AAUP-AFT vice president and anthropology professor David Hughes said. “We have been bargaining to bring [the aspects of] this lofty plan down to earth and to make it real and we have not made sufficient progress at the bargaining table.”

Hughes pointed to their proposed “EOF+6” plan that he said would help achieve many of the goals laid out in the Murphy administration’s plan: Such a program would give a six-year Ph.D fellowship, all expenses paid, to any Educational Opportunity Fund grant-program graduate who is admitted to Rutgers thus, he said, improving opportunities for minority students and simultaneously creating a pool of diverse and qualified teachers. EOF funding is reserved for students from “educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds” and can be used for tuition as well as support services like counseling and tutoring.

“It would take that population of students that is largely first generation and students of color and give them a pipeline to become a faculty member,” Hughes said. “Management has refused to talk to us about it.”

Teresa Politano, a part-time lecturer (PTL) in the School of Communication and president of the PTL faculty chapter at Rutgers said as a faculty member and as a parent, she’s hopeful that the plan will kickstart things at her university. She noted that at Rutgers alone, 70 percent of the faculty are contingent (Rutgers’ word for adjunct professors) like her and struggle to find time and space to provide students with the comprehensive education that they deserve. Politano said of PTLs at Rutgers, “We’re poorly paid, we have no job security, and no access to health benefits, we have no office space, no sick days, no maternity leave,” which makes going above and beyond to help students more difficult.

“We’re the ones who stand in front of the class,” Politano said. “Student success is directly related to what happens in the classroom so when you fix the system, you can address and support students better.”

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