New Jersey’s K-12 public school system has already been deemed one of the most segregated in the country. But is the state’s higher education system also set up to leave minority students locked out? A new report paints a bleak picture. Correspondent Briana Vannozzi recently spoke with Michael Dannenberg, the report’s co-author and director of strategic initiatives for policy at Education Reform Now.
Vannozzi: You talk about gaps between how the state serves white vs. black and Latino students. What are the gaps, and is it isolated just to higher education?
Dannenberg: Yeah, we took a look at opportunity, affordability and success in higher education because those three issues are interrelated, and what we found was that New Jersey ranks third in the country in its need for bachelor’s degree holders in its workforce.
Vannozzi: So we’re behind.
Dannenberg: Well, there’s a high need for bachelor’s degree holders in the workforce. It turns out for white households, they’re meeting that need, the state is meeting that need. But when it comes to black and Latino households, the state is falling far, far behind in terms of meeting that need. What we’re finding is that, essentially, black and Latino students are being channeled into under-resourced, underperforming two-year community colleges and that the state has gross inequities, inadequacies and inefficiencies in its distribution of higher education funding. You mentioned K-12. I think the school finance inequities in higher education would make K-12 advocates blush.
Vannozzi: Well, Gov. Murphy recently has said, “Hey, we recognize this, that there are inequities. We’re going to work to make free community college tuition.” Is that not a strategy that could help with some of these inequities?
Dannenberg: I think it’s a great idea to be making an upfront guarantee to families, that yes, you can go to college. A lot of families underestimate how much financial aid they can get and they overestimate college costs. The issue is that Gov. Murphy’s free community college tuition plan is just a first step and you need to go much further. You need to be covering total cost of attendance — not just tuition, but room and board, books, housing. You need to not only be helping students attend two-year county colleges, but also four-year schools. You need to be helping students go full-time instead of part-time. Those are sort of the keys to making sure that students go on to graduate, and that success, in terms of bachelor’s degree attainment, is important for the families who are investing in higher education, it’s important for the taxpayers of the state who are also investing and it’s important for the economic future of the state.
Vannozzi: A line from the report that stood out to me says, “If inequity isn’t addressed soon, the economy will suffer here.” How so?
Dannenberg: Well I mean, you’re already starting to see that, right? Amazon just picked its two big headquarters, right? One is in northern Virginia and the other, as you know, is in New York. Part of the reason they chose northern Virginia was because of the highly-educated population there and the capacity of institutions of higher education to grow.
Vannozzi: So we could potentially miss out?
Dannenberg: New Jersey could miss out, but I think the even deeper concern from my perspective is that inequity could worsen among races and among socioeconomic groups. You could have worsening inequity when it comes to economic status, but also that can fray the civic culture and we’re seeing that starting to have an effect on our political discourse.
Vannozzi: What are the recommendations, if there are any, that we need to look at and really take seriously very quickly?
Dannenberg: I think that the recipe is the same in K-12 education as is in higher education. The left wants resources and the right wants reforms, and really what’s best is a combination of resources and reform. That’s the way you’re going to get the best results. If there were four things I could do for New Jersey higher ed, Number One would be to speed time to degree. Number Two would be to extend the free community college promise to full affordability — two and four-year schools, full cost of attendance, all public universities in the state. Number Three would be to better target the so-called TAG [Tuition Aid Grant] program and invest in something called the Education Opportunity Fund program, which is excellent, but one-tenth the investment of the TAG program. And then last would be to come up with a sensible distribution of state higher education funding that’s based on student economic need at individual institutions and the performance of those institutions. We need to infuse the idea of accountability for results into our concept of affordability.