• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Locked Out?

Understanding New Jersey.

January 14, 2019

New Jersey is an unusual place. It has the highest population density of any state, over ⅓ higher than Japan’s. That explains both the traffic and the property taxes. Yet, unlike Japan, it lacks a major city of its own; it’s largely defined by two cities (New York and Philadelphia) outside its borders. Its media are largely out-of-state, which creates some weird gaps in news coverage. Even its NFL teams carry the name of another state. (The only NFL team to play its home games in New York State is the Buffalo Bills.) Although a “blue” state at the national level, New Jersey has a long history of Republican governors, and a tax revolt is never far from the surface.  

In education, it’s both typical and atypical. It’s typical in having massive and longstanding funding gaps between institutions, with those favored by upper-middle-class white people getting the most money. It’s atypical in having both an unusually good K-12 system, and one of the highest “export” rates of high school graduates in the country. The state pours money into primary and secondary education, then cheaps out on higher ed and fills other states’ universities with its graduates. I’ll admit that the economic logic of that strategy eludes me, but there it is. One sign of its relative indifference to public higher education is the relatively low national profile of its flagship university. Rutgers, the state flagship university, has an uncommonly high percentage of in-state students for a flagship.  It doesn’t attract very many out-of-state students, and the state seems to be okay with that. For whatever reason, the state seems content to make itself into the nation’s educational farm team. It develops prospects, then sends them away.

What makes that disconnect between K-12 and higher ed even weirder is that New Jersey has the second-highest bachelor’s degree rate of any state, behind only Massachusetts.  The economy here is particularly focused on high-value enterprises, by necessity. Given the cost of land and labor here, it’s hard to compete on the low end with lower-cost states.  It doesn’t have oil, and it isn’t nearly as warm and sunny as most of the South. If it’s going to compete, it has to compete on the high-value end. Yet the state remains weirdly negligent towards its own colleges.

“Locked Out of the Future,” a report on New Jersey’s higher education system from Education Reform Now, gets the picture about half-right. It notes correctly that the funding gaps among public colleges defy any sort of logic. For example, Rowan University gets more than double the per-FTE funding that Montclair State gets, even though Montclair State has a higher percentage of Pell recipients. Rutgers-New Brunswick, the flagship, gets more than twice as much as Rutgers-Newark, even though the latter has a much higher Pell percentage. And every single four-year college gets far more than any community college, with the racial lines falling more or less where a cynic would assume they would.

As the report correctly points out, the Tuition Aid Grant program (TAG) varies the award depending on cost of attendance, so a student attending Princeton gets more money from the state than a student attending a community college. Princeton’s endowment is over $20 billion, so that seems a bit misplaced.

The report treats community colleges as a problem to be solved, which is both frustrating and at least partially contradicted by its own data.  While it correctly notes that graduation rates for first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students are lower at community colleges than at most four-year colleges, it fails look at state support per FTE in this sector.  If it did, it would have noticed that state support is less than half even the lowest four-year college. Despite that, community colleges have shown the largest gains in graduation rates over the last several years; improvement despite austerity suggests that they’re doing something right, and might stand as examples, rather than cautionary tales.  

The report also fails to note that the FTFTDS cohort is a distinct minority at most community colleges, generally for reasons having nothing to do with the colleges themselves.  Finally, to the extent that New Jersey wants to solve its brain drain, the colleges closest to most people would be a logical place to build, rather than to avoid. Some recent high school grads want to stay close to home; making that option more appealing should be an urgent order of business.  

Its two-year blind spot notwithstanding, the report rightly calls attention to a funding scheme that falls somewhere between “accident of history” and “racist conspiracy,” to the extent that it’s possible to separate the two.  New Jersey may lack a major city, but it shouldn’t lack a strong public higher education sector. Here’s hoping the new Governor gives it a read.


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