UNION COUNTY — Democrat Assemblyman Joe Cryan believes its time institutions of higher learning step up their accountability and start thinking about the bottom line: the graduation rates of its students.
“When I speak with people in my district, whether it be on Elmora Avenue in Elizabeth or Liberty Avenue in Union, I usually hear many opinions with much of the same theme: Can you do anything about the cost of college?” said Cryan.
As a result, Cryan and Celeste Riley, R-Cumberland, teamed up to do something about improving higher education. The result was the introduction of 20 legislative bills last month that take aim at this issue.
Specifically, one bill would require the closing of four-year state colleges that don’t have six-year graduation rates of at least 50 percent. This would include Kean college, the assemblyman said, which continues to have low graduation rates.
“Completion should be a goal of every college and university. Three public higher education institutions have a graduation rate of less than 50 percent in six years of a student’s full time tenure,” said Cryan. “I do not expect our colleges to achieve Ivy League levels of success, but I do believe that 50 percent of full-time students are not to much to ask for.”
This particular bill could drive a wedge further between Cryan and Democrat State Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, who is a staunch and loyal supporter of Kean University, specifically the school’s president, Dawood Farahi.
Although Kean is located in Union, the relationship between the university and township is almost non-existent. In fact, elected officials have complained for years that Farahi has failed to keep them abreast of construction plans at the university as a courtesy.
State institutions do not have to seek approval before local zoning or planning boards, but Cryan has said in the past Kean should notify the township when they are undertaking a large construction project.
When asked about the bills, Cryan explained that the measure was intended to improve higher education, not take aim at Lesniak, Kean or Farahi. He pointed out that New Jersey City University and William Patterson University also have had low graduation rates. The assemblyman also noted that the bills involve much more than the issue of low graduation rates.
“These 20 bills were aimed at cutting costs for the students that entrust their careers to them,” Cryan said, adding that this legislation covers various topics ranging from reform for resident meal plans, books and setting standard course numbers for core classes and freezing costs for tuition and fees,” Cryan explained.
During the drafting stage, both Cryan and Riley met with several college presidents, student organizations and labor unions.
“Each had a seat at the table and we expect each of them, and more, to be part of the continuing dialogue. This participation mixed with government action is what my constituents expect
from me, nothing less,” the assemblyman said, adding “we anticipate even more discussion to follow.”
One topic of discussion, Cryan said, is the current price of higher education. While many factors contribute to the cost, he said, tuition and fees have reached an “all too high level.”
“My plan is to initiate a tuition freeze that would set a standard tuition cost for nine semesters of a student’s tenure. We plan to propose increased funding to mitigate the cost of such measures,” the assemblyman said, adding that a student should not have to compensate for the spending and borrowing habits of their university.
“The onus must be on the college to properly forecast and budget,” Cryan added.
While not bringing up Kean University specifically as an offender of overspending, according to information obtained by LocalSource, the state university is over $350 million in debt and continues to have low graduation rates year after year.
Over the last few years, falling enrollment, $353 million in debt, a president who falsified his academic records, NCAA suspensions, a lousy bond rating, mismanaged federal aid and academic probation were problems that plagued Kean University. Kean’s debt actually went from $124 million in 2003 to $353 last year, according to Moody’s Investor Services, which downgraded its bonds as a result.
Despite declining enrollment, though, Farahi has continued to initiate building projects on campus, including a state-of-the-art building now in progress. Last year, sources at Kean said enrollment continued a downward spiral, with the number of registered students sinking to 14,700 compared to 15,300 in 2012 and 16,100 in 2011. The university did try to bolster sagging enrollment by accepting students that were rejected in the spring.
Kean faculty members pointed out last year that Kean has one of the lowest graduation rates of the state’s four-year public colleges, with less than a quarter of students graduating on time.
“Our young adults are accruing staggering amounts of debt due to student loans and it is becoming their generational distinction,” said Cryan, pointing out the average New Jersey college graduate holds almost $30,000 in student loan debt.
“We have an obligation to them and the thousands every year who leave with debt, but with no degree, to look at every possible option to decrease the financial burden and increase college completion,” the assemblyman added.