BY JORDAN BARTH
On Feb. 7, editors of County College of Morris’ The Youngtown Edition were invited to par- ticipate in a roundtable discussion with New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney of Gloucester County on college affordability at the Statehouse in Trenton. The discussion also included students from Rowan University, Rutgers-Camden, Rider University and other community colleges from around the state.
Sweeney is currently the President of the New Jersey Senate, one of the legislative houses in the state Legislature. The state senator has firsthand experience with the college affordability issue. His son is a recent graduate of The College of New Jersey, completing his master’s degree. However, Sweeney himself did not personally attend college, so he has “a different point of view” on the issue.
He admittedly said, “I am one of the luckiest people in the world because it worked out for me, but no one should ever leave life to luck.”
Specific aspects to increasing access to higher education included; the Tuition Equality Act, with the importance of name recognition in student collegiate selection, expanding seat capacity of colleges and universities statewide, the NJ STARS program, his “College Affordability Study Commission” bill, the rising cost of books and student supplies, and the financial feasibility of attending graduate school. These topics touched the surface of the conversation taking place among the group.
“This isn’t the end all to be all, but we have to start talking about how this [referring to state higher education] does not work,” Sweeney said.
The financial benefits of supporting higher education are numerous. New Jersey ranks 48th in the nation for higher education funding, but first in K-12 funding.
“The reason it is so important to focus on higher education and affordability is so that only the wealthy don’t go to college,” Sweeney said. “I mean we need the middle class. We need the working poor. We need to create opportunities.”
In addition, New Jersey loses approximately $7 billion in revenue from students leaving the state for schooling in tuition dollars and dispensable income.
Since the state senator is from Gloucester County and through his involvement in education reform, he has a strong working relationship with Rowan University. He recently discussed ways to decrease the insurmountable costs associated with higher education with the president of the university, Dr. Ali A. Houshmand, and the President of Gloucester County College, Fred Keating.
“We matched up with our county college. We changed our county college’s name from Gloucester County College to Rowan College [of Gloucester County], and the agreement we have with Rowan is [the] first two years, you are a Rowan student at county college rates. If you stay the last two years at Rowan College, you’ll graduate with a Rowan degree at a 15 percent discount each year.”
“Now, 15 percent is a lot of money,” he exclaimed. “And that’s just one little idea.”
According to NJ.com, starting in July, students who want to take advantage of this option can enroll in classes at the county college on a track to a four-year degree at Rowan. On the same day, Rowan College of Gloucester County students can enroll to attend Rowan University; if the student maintains a GPA of 2.0 or higher.
“We talked about creating this study commission, not just to study things, to actually look what’s going on around the country and taking the best ideas and implementing ‘em here,” Sweeney said.
The state senator was referring to his bill, establishing a “College Affordability Study Commission” to examine issues and develop recommendations to increase the affordability of higher education in New Jersey.
This bill was influenced by a landmark bill recently passed by the Oregon Legislature.
According to USA Today, The Oregon program allows students to attend public and community colleges tuition and fee-free, as long as they promise a fixed portion of their yearly salaries after graduation to their alma mater.
Programs like Rowan’s are being done throughout the country. One notable example, is the Pennsylvania State University system. When students look up “Penn State,” they’ll run into “Penn State: Altoona campus” or “Penn State-Wilkes Barre campus.” The satellite campuses all used to be county colleges subsidized by the state of Pennsylvania then that got rebranded and given the widely-known Penn State name.
Sweeney alluded to the notion that “when you talk to young people [referring to attending a community college], its just not viewed as college.”
“Another idea we have… instead of exporting jobs, importing jobs. Creating job opportunities for students so that you can work 800 hours a year, minimum wage, for a company like AT&T… They [the companies] put the money [earned wages] into a foundation. The corporations get a tax cut because it’s a foundation, the money goes towards paying your education so you work when you graduate, you are not ‘going to have any bills because they are paid for that way.”
“Lets look at the world differently and how can we make it work better…”
Studies have shown that people who attend higher education earn $1 million dollars more than someone who did not attend over their lifetime of employment.
The increasing cost of college is not limited to financial stress, studies have shown personal harm has come from it as well. Sweeney described one example.
“I know a young lady who just recently tried to hurt herself because she got so depressed when she got out of college, she couldn’t pay her bills, and she couldn’t find a job, you know, in her field, and did something very bad because she was so depressed,” he described.
Stories similar to the one described by the State Senator are becoming increasingly common and are only expected to increase without action to decrease cost.