Affordability, STEAM curriculum, and preparing students to be lifelong learners

2019 Forecast Issue: Higher Education

Presidents of three New Jersey universities expect the affordability of New Jersey colleges to be a major factor impacting students in 2019, along with an emphasis on science/technology/engineering/arts/mathematics education (STEAM) to prepare students for high-demand careers.

Montclair State University President Susan Cole said she would like to see more equitable allocations of funding to New Jersey’s public universities and a more rational system of distribution.  Gov. Phil Murphy’s newest appointees as education leaders could bring about much-needed changes, she said.

Cole noted that public colleges in the state were the fourth most expensive in the United States in 2018.  “New Jersey has never well-funded its higher education infrastructure,” she said. On top of that, funding has declined over the last 20 years even as enrollments have grown. “Not only has the actual dollar amount declined, but the support per student has declined very significantly. As a consequence, that gap has had to be made up by increasing tuition in the public sector,” she said.

The second aspect of the high cost of New Jersey public colleges revolves around financial aid. The Tuition Aid Grant Program (TAG) seeks to make public colleges affordable without respect to the economic means of the individual student, she said.

“If you have a state where public tuition in higher education is high, then you have to have a financial aid program that is generous so students can pay those high tuitions,” Cole said.

New Jersey pays $430 million annually to the TAG program, which Cole said is structured to support private colleges. “The TAG Program is deeply and urgently in need of reform,” she said, adding that she sees “light at the end of the tunnel.” To support this view, she cited Murphy’s appointment of David Socolow as executive director of the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority.

“From my discussions with him, he has a very deep understanding of the problems with TAG,” Cole said. “I think he is eager to put in place reforms that will help solve some of the issues of affordability in New Jersey.”

Another closely related problem, according to Cole, is the state’s system of funding. “State allocations for higher education make no sense,” Cole said. “There is no rational policy behind them.”

She said she expects Murphy’s recent appointment to Secretary of Higher Education, Zakiya Smith Ellis, to create a better funding structure.

Cole said she hopes the governor’s fiscal year 2020 budget shows movement toward a rational funding plan for higher education and reform of the TAG Program.

STEAM programs

Universities have developed curriculum in big data and cybersecurity in recent years. Cole referenced these programs to show that New Jersey colleges will create more STEAM curriculum in the coming years. “What is going to change is …. the focus and emphasis of those programs,” Cole said.

New Jersey Institute of Technology President Joel Bloom predicts more disruption and innovation. He gave the example of the medical industry transferring patients’ medical records from paper format to electronic format.

“Biomedical engineering is one of our fastest growing majors,” Bloom said. “The beauty of NJIT is much of what we do here goes on to improve the quality of life for people. It is the air they breathe and the water they drink.”

Employers are increasingly seeking employees who possess critical thinking skills and lifelong learning, especially of disruptive technologies.

“So many of the future opportunities are in STEM,” Bloom said. “The Wall Street Journal last year said we need 1.3 million new STEM employees each year. As a nation we are only producing 600,000. That is a problem of education, technology and economics.”

STEM and STEAM both refer to science and technology programs, with the latter also emphasizing the arts.

“In addition to understanding science and technology, [students] learn to think critically and problem-solve,” Bloom said. “They have to learn the soft skills of communication. Even though we are all fixated on electronic devices, the best form of communication is still the spoken word.”

“If you pick up your phone or laptop, you can only keystroke 50 words per minute,” Bloom said. “I can talk to you at 140 words per minute. If technology is about the acceleration of knowledge, there is not a better way to communicate that knowledge,” he said.

“The solution is in our ability to communicate concisely, clearly, accurately,” Bloom said. “[W]e have to make sure [students’] communication skills are as sharp as they need to be because much more technology is going to be voice-driven.

Rowan University President Ali Houshmand said, “I see that there is going to be a whole new set of economies created over the next few years that in the broadest sense will be concentrated in the areas of life sciences.”

He predicts the United States will transition from gasoline-powered cars to renewable energy cars within the next decade. “The technologies are here,” Houshmand said. “It needs to be more refined and strong. … Academia is not ready. I do not think anybody is ready. The speed with which change is happening is so incredibly fast.”

He gave the example of cellular phones offering internet and streaming videos. “I do not know how many people 15 years ago thought they would have a piece of machine that they could do almost anything with,” Houshmand said.

On the subject of human health, he believes scientific advances could expand human life expectancy to 200 years through gene sequencing to alter diseases.

Another major challenge will be to respond to employers’ demands for experts in multiple skills.

“You do not want your own child to grow up to become just a mechanical engineer,” Houshmand said. “The likelihood is that child by the time he reaches retirement has gone through 10 or 15 jobs. Therefore you need to be able to change your focus and your way of life from one industry to another. When you are broadly educated and are culturally rich, you have the ability to switch from one major to another. The notion of just focusing on engineering and mathematics and [information technology] and forgetting about music, history, and philosophy in my opinion is a big mistake because it limits people and makes people very narrow. And this is a world in which people need to be broad in their knowledge.”

David Hutter
David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at: dhutter@njbiz.com.

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