UNION COUNTY — Democrat Assemblyman Joseph Cryan is not happy that a 20-bill package that would hold down state college and university tuition and increase graduation rates was shelved by a fellow Democrat.
Seven months, ago when Cryan sponsored this package of bills, he was completely aware that he and co-sponsor Democrat Assemblywoman Celeste Riley, representing parts of Salem, Gloucester and Cumberland counties, were proposing an ambitious package of reform bills. What he did not expect was that the bills forcing state colleges and universities to get their graduation rates above 50 percent would eventually hit a brick wall.
Democrat State Senate President Stephen Sweeney announced last week the senate will not be considering Cryan’s proposed package until he forms a study commission to take a “holistic” look at higher education in general. The senate president said in a statement he wanted to take a closer look at the proposed bills and “proceed cautiously.”
When asked about Sweeney’s stance, Cryan said the time for studying this package was “over.”
He explained the measure was intended to improve higher education, including improving graduation rates and cutting costs for students.
During the drafting stage, both Cryan and Riley met with several college presidents, student organizations and labor unions. Each, the assemblyman said, had a seat at the table and expected to be a part of continuing dialogue on the issue.
“The onus must be on a college to properly forecast and budget,” he said.
Cryan readily admitted he was not happy that Sweeney decided right before the package was to move out of the assembly there needed to be a commission set up to take a “holistic look” at higher education statewide so there were no “unintended consequences.”
Sweeney, though, did not elaborate on what those consequences might be.
“I think the senate president is going to have a lot of explaining to do to middle class families if he chooses to shelve these bills,” Cryan said, stressing that tuition at state colleges and universities goes up an average of 23 percent during a student’s tenure.
Cryan and Riley introduced the legislation in March, holding hearings throughout the state to get a better handle on how it would be received. According to Cryan, he found widespread support for the bills that could radically change things for students and parents paying tuition.
Last spring when Cryan introduced the bills, he explained what prompted him to do so.
“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 the same theme: Can you do anything about the cost of college?” the assemblyman said.
One of the bills would hit state universities very hard, like Kean University in Union, since it would mean closing any four-year state facility that does not have six-year graduation rates of at least 50 percent.
Last year, Cryan said, Kean had a six-year graduation rate of 19 percent.
“That’s unacceptable,” Cryan added.
Overall, the bills address six areas, including college readiness, graduation rates, costs, data collection, college accountability and creating student pathways to success. Among these proposals is a tuition freeze that would ensure tuition and fees remained the same for a maximum of 10 consecutive semesters, rather than increasing every year. Another bill provided an income tax deduction for student loan interest.
One of the bills involving state college and university accountability directs the secretary of higher education to establish performance-based funding plans for public institutions of higher learning.
Another portion of this bill package would concern the potential for revoking a school’s license to award academic degrees if they fail to achieve at least a 75 percent 6-year graduation rate for full-time students enrolled in a four-year program.
Yet another would require the state auditor to conduct an audit of fees charged by public institutions of higher education to explain how these fees are being distributed and how they are benefiting college students.
Noteworthy here is that a portion of the accountability bill requires the N.J. Educational Facilities Authority to annually prepare a report on debt held by public institutions.
Issues such as Kean University carrying $338 million in debt would then be addressed by a state agency, which would keep tabs on the amount of debt carried by state colleges and universities.
Over the last several years at Kean University, falling enrollment, debt that skyrocketed to over $350 million at one point.
Kean’s debt record shows that the university went from $124 million in 2003 to $353 million last year, according to Moody’s Investor Services, which downgraded Kean’s ability to get bonds at a lesser cost.
Despite this, Kean President Dawood Farahi has continued to initiate building projects on campus, including a state-of-art building now in progress.
According to sources, Kean’s enrollment has continued to drop, with the university trying to bolster sagging numbers by accepting the students rejected in the spring.
Cryan strongly believes that this package of bills is critical to slashing not only tuition but also holding state colleges and universities accountable.
“This way, if this package of bills went through, colleges would be pressured to improve graduation rates,” Cryan said, pointing out that Kean, William Paterson and New Jersey City universities are currently at or below the 50 percent graduation rate.
Sweeney actually proposed a separate bill that sets up a college affordability task force to look at options to control college costs.
This bill also includes a “pay it forward” proposal that would allow students to pay for college after they graduate and have an income. This bill passed the senate last year but Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it based on the fact it duplicated work already being done by state agencies and colleges.
Regardless of Sweeney introducing this roadblock, Cryan said the bill package is continuing to move through the assembly, where by the end of the month there should be a floor vote.
In the end, any bill requires passage both by the assembly and senate before it heads to the governor’s desk for his stamp of approval.
Cryan added that these delays will only serve to leave these reforms for another generation.
Sweeney’s office did not respond to requests for comment.