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While one interpretation of recent IPEDS data (by Matt Reed in Inside Higher Ed's “Confessions of a Community College Dean” blog) might “suggest that more young people want out of New Jersey than want in,” a closer look at the numbers indicates that New Jersey is retaining just about as many of its students as it can. We are also making investments in facilities to maintain -- and, we hope, expand -- our ability to serve the state's students, who in turn will build the backbone of our workforce.

The high net outmigration of first-time degree-seeking undergraduates is an old story in New Jersey. The New Jersey Higher Education Task Force, chaired by former Governor Tom Kean, wrote in its December 2010 report:

In part because of a lack of college capacity, New Jersey has a too-long history of losing more college-bound students than attend in state. In fact, New Jersey has the dubious distinction of leading the nation in net outmigration of college-bound students, earning New Jersey the nickname of the “cuckoo bird” state, since the cuckoo bird lays its eggs in other birds’ nests.

We could note that the roadrunner is a species of cuckoo, so it’s no wonder so many students quickly leave New Jersey. But a closer and more serious look at the IPEDS data shows that New Jersey’s institutions strongly attract -- and well serve -- New Jersey’s students.

The College Board’s "Trends in College Pricing" report for 2015 indicated that 93 percent of first-time students at public four-year colleges in New Jersey were residents of New Jersey. We have been at that level for at least 10 years. In fact, New Jersey attracts a higher percentage of its own students to stay for college than any state in the U.S. other than Alaska (we are tied at 93 percent) and Texas (94 percent). More recent data being compiled by the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities (NJASCU) indicate that the figure is even higher for the eight member institutions of NJASCU, which I head.

As the Kean Commission noted, capacity is the key to understanding enrollment in New Jersey. Simply put, our institutions are nearly full. It has been estimated that our institutions would need to expand by 44 percent to accommodate every student in New Jersey.

For decades, New Jersey shortsightedly underinvested in higher education infrastructure. New Jersey provided no capital funding for higher education between fiscal year 2003 and fiscal year 2014, and was one of only seven states that failed to invest in higher education capital needs between 2012 and 2014.

We are slowly reversing that trend. In 2012, New Jersey’s voters -- with a strong yes vote of 63 percent -- approved a $750 million bond issue for higher education construction, the first state-backed financing for higher education in New Jersey since 1988. Also in 2012, New Jersey renewed over $560 million in revenue bonds for projects targeting capital improvements, technology and equipment.

The results of that investment are coming into view. Buildings for programs in engineering; environmental, health and other sciences; business; and nursing are all underway or completed.

The investment trend in capital needs continues in the right direction and is answering the call of the Kean Commission, which wrote, “The future of the state … depends on retaining good students who wish to stay in New Jersey but who are squeezed out by New Jersey’s lack of capacity.” Another $180 million in bond funds has recently become available, and our institutions are working to meet the Jan. 16 deadline for applications.

Public-private partnerships are another important way in which our institutions are constructing facilities to benefit students and the campus communities. Projects providing classroom and retail space, bookstores and student apartments, campus-altering residence halls, and even brand-new campuses are being built with private financing to help our institutions stretch their resources.

New Jersey’s overall investment in the operation of its public four-year institutions, however, is falling, and is a cause for concern. In fiscal 2016, appropriations for operating expenses at New Jersey’s senior public colleges and universities were cut over $34 million, with the state colleges and universities suffering a 7.3 percent loss and the public research institutions enduring a 4.65 percent reduction.

These cuts are part of an unfortunate trend in New Jersey. Between 1994 and 2014, educational appropriations per full-time-equivalent student at public institutions in New Jersey dropped over 46 percent, according to data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

Under the direction of autonomous boards of trustees and presidents, our institutions have deftly handled the reduction in state operating support. Over the past five years, the public four-year institutions in New Jersey were tied for the fourth-lowest percentage increase in in-state tuition and required fees, at 4 percent.

Despite the capacity crunch and the financing challenges, New Jersey’s public institutions are serving more students than ever. Between 2003 and 2013, New Jersey had the sixth-highest increase in FTE enrollment at public institutions, at 22 percent.

Demand remains strong. Some of our member institutions are reporting increases of 4 to 5 percent -- and even higher -- in applications over this time last year for regular decision.

After they enroll, our students do well in their studies. They persist from year to year, and then graduate, near the top of national charts. Almost 85 percent of first-time college freshmen at senior public institutions in New Jersey return for their second year, sixth highest in the nation. The six-year graduation rate for members of the Class of 2014 at New Jersey’s four-year public institutions was 61 percent, also sixth highest in the U.S.

Once they receive their diplomas, students from the state colleges and universities tend to stay here in New Jersey. Out of over 518,000 alumni from our NJASCU institutions, more than two-thirds (363,000) reside in New Jersey.

It is critically important to our state’s future that our graduates stay and work in New Jersey. New Jersey’s workforce, more and more, demands workers with an advanced education. Jobs requiring a postsecondary education in New Jersey will increase from 62 percent in 2010 to 68 percent in 2020, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The percentage of jobs in New Jersey requiring a bachelor’s degree will be the highest of any state in 2020, at 29 percent. The member institutions of NJASCU produced over 63 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in New Jersey in 2014, making us the engine that will help drive the state’s workforce.

It has been said that “Unless you’re from New Jersey, you can’t understand New Jersey.” Looking at only one IPEDS statistic obscures the view of the high demand and high quality of public higher education in New Jersey. Our story is worth explaining.

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