“How to Stop N.J.’s College Brain Drain”

(Opinion piece published in The Star-Ledger and nj.com, April 15, 2017)

By Christopher A. Capuano, Ph.D., President, Fairleigh Dickinson University

For decades, New Jersey has been one of the highest exporters of college students. Students go to college in other states for lots of reasons. One reason is that New Jersey is a small state and many choices are located within close proximity to its borders — in Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut and Delaware. Also, many New Jersey high school graduates hail from families in high income brackets and can afford to seize opportunities in other states. Another reason often given for students leaving the state is lack of capacity within New Jersey. However, the truth is that there is plenty of capacity at colleges and universities in New Jersey.

No matter how you slice it, though, high school graduates leaving the state to go to college elsewhere leads to an unmistakable judgment about the current state of higher education in New Jersey. With each exodus, we are losing talented students who may never return to New Jersey to strengthen our workforce, to foster economic development, and to make civic contributions to our great state.

So how do we keep students in New Jersey? How do we give students more options and strengthen the choices they have within the state?

As president of a university in New Jersey, I can speak well to the benefits of our higher education system. And as president of the state’s largest private university, I can speak especially well of the private or independent sector of non-profit institutions in New Jersey. The first step is indeed to get the word out about what we are doing well here in New Jersey and then to better support what we are doing well.

The 14 non-profit, independent colleges and universities in New Jersey enroll more than 15 percent of all students attending four-year institutions in the state. Contrary to the perception that these colleges serve mostly students from high-income families, most actually serve a similar proportion of students from low-income families. And, as noted recently in a Brookings report (“Don’t Forget Private, Non-Profit Colleges,” February 16, 2017), students from low-income families who attend an independent college or university have higher upward income mobility than those who attend public colleges, which basically means that they are very well prepared to make significant upward strides in their careers and income.

Independent colleges and universities in New Jersey often have a more particular academic focus as well. In addition, they generally have smaller class sizes, more intimate campus communities, and more personal attention and interaction. And these characteristics have been proven to deliver significant educational benefits.

Moreover, because few public dollars are granted to independent colleges and universities in New Jersey, the cost to taxpayers is very low (just $1,578 per student during the 2015-2016 academic year vs. $9,075 per student at four-year public institutions in New Jersey during the same year). But, nevertheless, the independent sector drives significant economic growth in our state. In fact, the economic impact of the independent sector on New Jersey was approximately $4 billion in 2015 alone.

With such powerful outcomes and potential to do more, one would think that the state would want to do more to support its independent colleges and universities, many of which have small endowments and need more assistance in order to enroll more students. Shockingly, state funding per student at New Jersey’s independent colleges and universities has declined by 90 percent since 2008. New Jersey’s investment in the operating costs of 14 independent colleges and universities in the state is currently just $1 million annually, while the state’s investment in operating costs, including benefits support, for all public colleges and universities in the state is more than $1.6 billion annually. Therefore, although independent colleges and universities account for more than 15 percent of the total enrollment at colleges and universities in the state, independent colleges and universities receive less than 0.1 percent of direct aid provided by the state.

If we wish to give our students more options and keep more of them in New Jersey, then we can start by supporting our 14 independent colleges and universities more, helping to make them more affordable options to more students in New Jersey and thereby expand the choices available to more students.