Fairleigh Dickinson professor: Revamp NJ’s higher education strategic plan

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

New Jersey has an abundance of colleges: nineteen two-years, 11 state-sponsored four-years and 14 independent universities each with its own strategic plans and priorities. One college provost says that’s not necessarily a good thing. Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron sat down with Fairleigh Dickinson University Professor of Comparative Politics and Florham Campus Provost Peter Woolley.

Aron: Peter Woolley, you just published an op-ed on higher ed in The Star-Ledger. What’s the problem you were trying to call attention to?

Woolley: The problem that I am trying to call attention to in New Jersey’s higher ed is that we don’t have a strategic plan for our colleges and universities much like other states that do have such a strategic plan. And, that’s a problem because for New Jersey colleges and universities the marketplace in higher education has really become a very difficult, almost cut throat environment. Now, that’s okay in a strict marketplace in a business world, but in an environment where the actors all have public missions, that is to educate the public, not to make money, but to improve society. You really want some kind of coordination among all those good actors, and that’s something that our neighboring states do — New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and many other states across the nation, but New Jersey is not doing that.

Aron: You’re talking about a strategic plan that embraces both the independent colleges like FDU and Princeton, and all the state colleges and Rutgers?

Woolley: That’s right. And, one that embraces the state sponsored colleges, the nonprofit colleges, has something to say about the for-profit colleges.

Aron: Community colleges?

Woolley: Community colleges, absolutely. Because all of those actors have a public mission. Some of those missions differ, but we’re all aiming for a common good. And so, with a little coordination and a little strategic planning looking out five and 10 years you can do a lot more good.

Aron: Twenty-something years ago, the pendulum was on the other side. All of the colleges were calling for autonomy. Gov. Wittman at the time abolished something called the Department of Higher Education, they had a chancellor, created something leaner, the Office of Higher Education, with a secretary. It sounds like you want to go back to the chancellor and more bureaucrats overseeing higher ed.

Woolley: Well, I want to go back to something that has a little more teeth and a little better coordination. In 1994, when that office was abolished it was really an echo of the Reagan years. The people were, especially Republican leadership at the time was, trying to identify bureaucracies low line. They thought they could get rid of and nobody would really notice or protest. But, there are two things we really didn’t know in 1994 when people made that decision and thought it might be good. One was, we were on the cusp, maybe 10 years away, from a digital revolution. That has really upset the entire apple cart for higher education. The other thing is that we were just beginning to see the explosion of for-profit colleges on the marketplace.

Aron: Are they big in New Jersey?

Woolley: They are not as big in New Jersey as in many other states, but they are still big enough. There are several tens of thousands of students enrolled in for-profits. And to the extent that that’s a problem, all you have to do is look at student debt. So, the small percentage of students who are enrolled in for-profit colleges account for a much disproportional amount of student debt in total. Also, defaults — 50 percent of all defaults in student debt are due to people going to for-profit colleges.

Aron: So maybe we should just regulate for-profit colleges and leave Montclair State and all the state colleges alone to do their own thing.

Woolley: Well, that would be a halfway position. The problem there is that for-profit colleges are immensely profitable and immensely well-organized and they put a lot of money into the marketplace of politicians. They have buy-ins from both sides of the aisle and it’s become very, very difficult for regulators to get at the for-profit colleges. By the way, in New Jersey, we are one of the very few states, one of only 13 states, whose Attorney General has not joined in any suits against for-profit colleges.

Aron: So you want more authority for the current secretary of higher education to be able to write a plan?

Woolley: Yes, a plan that could be embraced by the state sponsored colleges, by the nonprofit colleges and even by the most responsible for-profit colleges.

Aron: Would Princeton want to be a part of a plan that included community colleges?

Woolley: I can’t speak for Princeton, but Princeton is a very present player in conversations about higher education in New Jersey, very responsible, active participant in all the conversations.

Aron: Is there duplication between our colleges? Is that the problem?

Woolley: There is duplication, there is over capacity and there’s really too much competition. It’s inefficient given that this is a marketplace supported directly and indirectly by taxpayers.

Aron: Peter Woolley, thanks very much.

Woolley: My pleasure. Thank you.