Steinhauer testifies on higher ed bill package

Published on Wednesday, May 14, 2014

NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer today testified before the NJ Assembly Higher Education Committee at a hearing on a 20-bill higher education reform package at The College of New Jersey. Other hearings will be held on May 28 at Rowan University and June 11 at Hudson County Community College.

NJEA represents more than 4,000 higher education members at the state’s 19 community colleges. Steinhauer, the father of a current Burlington County College student, said “The issue of college affordability, college completion and college readiness are monumental tasks that we all need to come together and solve. This is not – and cannot be – a partisan issue. It’s a community issue. College affordability is one of the defining issues of our time and one of paramount importance to our middle class and working families across the state and the nation.”

Below is Steinhauer’s full testimony:

Good morning. First of all, I would like to thank the chair for holding these hearings. This issue is of particular interest to me because I am the proud parent of two college graduates and my youngest child is currently enrolled as a student at Burlington County College.

Higher education is also an area of great interest for every NJEA member. While NJEA represents approximately 4,000 members in higher education at 19 county colleges in the state, every NJEA member is invested in how well prepared our students are for college, the workforce, and life. So we are very pleased to testify before this committee today.

The issue of college affordability, college completion and college readiness are monumental tasks that we all need to come together and solve. This is not – and cannot be – a partisan issue. It’s a community issue. College affordability is one of the defining issues of our time and one of paramount importance to our middle class and working families across the state and the nation.

As college costs skyrocket and federal student aid lags, too many Americans must borrow staggering amounts of money to pay for higher education. Last year, new college graduates owed, on average, a crushing $29,000 each in debt. At these levels student debt isn't just a burden, it's a barrier to our young men and women.  

This is an issue that hits close to home for many New Jerseyans. We are a very well-educated state. So it’s no surprise that New Jersey ranks 8th highest among states in student debt, according to the Project on Student Debt. 

As costs rise, students borrow more: two-thirds of college graduates leave school owing money - or worse, our high school graduates simply don’t go to college.

This package of bills seems to be increasing the costs and burdens on two-year and four-year institutions. But who will really bear this cost? The colleges? The students?

County colleges did their own internal study of revenues and expenditures from FY 2009 – FY 2012, titled “Financial Report of the County Community Colleges of the State of New Jersey for the Fiscal Years 2009-2012”. 

Some key findings of the report were that by FY 2012, tuition and fees accounted for 62.4% of the system’s TOTAL revenue. State funding had declined from 16.7% of total revenue in FY 2009 to 13.9% in FY 2012. County funding decreased from 24.4% in FY 2009 to 19.8% in FY 2012. 

Clearly we have a crisis about who should pay for public higher education. This shifting of the financial burden is the paramount question facing all of higher education today. 

NJEA is pleased that some of the bills establish scholarships for students and partnerships with K-12 but we want to ensure that college faculty are teaching the college courses. As you are well aware, NJEA has long been a vocal supporter of the NJ Stars program and in our recent budget testimony, we echoed our annual plea for further investment in the program.

We must address the issue of affordability and one solution is for the state to renew its commitment to supporting its public colleges and universities. Hopefully, that can be part of the College Affordability Study Commission’s work.

College completion is another area that this package of bills aims to address. But keep in mind, not every student enters these schools with the goal of achieving a degree. Some of these students may be mid-career professionals boosting their job qualifications in a particular industry. They do not need an additional degree to advance professionally, just a few classes. To impose accountability on our county colleges based on the number of students who earn a degree could actually discourage applicants.

As you examine the processes that are already in place, we would urge you to make changes, as necessary, that are research-based, and which further the colleges’ mission, not impede it. While NJEA does not entirely oppose the issue of performance-based funding as it pertains to higher education, we do oppose using graduation rates and degree certificates and job placement as criteria to determine funding. 

On the topic of college readiness, we feel that the battle about remedial education has become overblown. At county colleges, admissions are open to all and remediation is a function of their mission. As a career educator, I can tell you that some students take longer to decide that college is the right choice for them. They may not have focused the way they should have during their K-12 education to best prepare themselves for college. So remediation – while not the goal – is also NOT evidence that the county colleges or K-12 education system need to be overhauled.

Unfortunately, remediation is driving much of the rhetoric around this issue. There are plenty of people parroting the idea that students are coming to college unprepared, that they can’t pass the Accuplacer, and that something is wrong with K-12 education. I know of one example where a college took the valedictorian of her class who was an English honors student and put her in remedial classes for English at a community college. This student blamed herself for what she perceived as her failure. But it wasn’t her failure; it was the failure of the system to accurately place those who need remedial courses and those who do not.

And let me remind you that in almost every indicator, New Jersey’s public schools are among the best in the nation. I could recite statistic after statistic from reputable organizations such as Education Week, the College Board, and surveys such as Quality Counts. But you already know these facts. So why would anyone believe that K-12 education is the problem?

But these accusations of failure seem to be gaining steam as an absolute truth. To counter that, I’d like to point you to a study from Columbia University, Community College Research Center, which states that “a significant number of students entering community colleges around the country are at risk of being inaccurately placed in remedial classes.” 

The study further points out that “nationwide, 60% of entering community college students who recently graduated high school are assigned to remediation. Students must pay tuition for remedial courses, but the credits they earn do not count towards graduation. The cost to schools of providing remedial instruction has been estimated at roughly $2.5 billion dollars annually.” So let’s not place the blame on our students. Place it where it belongs – on a high stakes test that – like many other high stakes tests – only serves to frustrate our students and prevent them from learning while providing an opportunity to label them and their schools as failures.

NJEA also has concerns about the fact that this package of bills requires longitudinal data systems even though the purpose of collecting this data is unclear and there are unanswered questions about how this data will be used. At the same time, it appears that much of this data has already been collected in NJ Smart.

And NJEA really appreciates that this committee is looking into the for-profit colleges which seem to cause so much more harm than good.

In closing, while NJEA is reserving comment on any one bill specifically until the committee addresses them separately, most of the bills proposed seem to be a hindrance upon the colleges and the students they serve and would actually prevent them from achieving their goals. As always, we look forward to meeting with the sponsors and we appreciate their openness to suggestions on amendments. 

Our suggestion is that this package of bills waits until S-979/(Sweeney)/A-2236 (Riley, Wisniewski, Benson, Lampitt) is hopefully signed by the governor. This bill establishes the College Affordability Study Commission to examine issues and develop recommendations to increase the affordability of higher education in New Jersey. 

And with all the changes coming in education and K-12 with regards to Core Curriculum and College and Career Readiness, I think it’s best for the committee to wait for those initiatives, which have been many, many years in the making, to take hold before you proceed on some of the measures proposed in these bills.  

Once again, I’m very happy that this committee is looking into the challenges facing our county colleges and county college students. NJEA is ready to work with you to help identify ways that we can make every college – and every student successful. But there is no place in that conversation for punishments and rhetoric that only serve to push students and colleges farther away from their goals.

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