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The old college try

Montclair State and Rutgers join more than 100 other institutions in an effort to improve the employment prospects of at-risk students

Montclair State University and Rutgers University are among the 130 public research universities aiming to award hundreds of thousands more degrees by the year 2025, eliminate the achievement gap for low-income, minority and first-generation students while expanding access to higher education and sharing data with other colleges.

The two New Jersey institutions belong to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), which set those lofty goals in an initiative called Powered by Publics: Scaling Student Success, which grew out of a meeting at the APLU’s Center for Public University Transformation in New Orleans in November 2018. Powered by Publics was initially funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The program could help expand New Jersey’s educated workforce, a possibility not lost on the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. Bob Considine, the group’s chief communications officer, called Powered by Publics “a noble mission to pursue given our workforce challenges in New Jersey.”

This sort of collaboration among universities was among the recommendations included in a 2018 NJBIA report titled Education Equation: Strategies for Retaining and Attracting New Jersey’s Future Workforce. “We observe that many employers are challenged in finding qualified applicants for skilled positions,” Considine told NJBIZ via email. “There is a critical skills gap that is leaving good-paying jobs unfilled in New Jersey, which is one of the reasons we supported a ‘yes’ vote on the Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act.”

In addition, NJBIA’s 2019 Business Outlook Survey, prepared by policy analyst Nicole Sandelier, called for efforts to promote the benefits of staying or coming to New Jersey for postsecondary education; improve collaboration between government agencies, employers, educational institutions, nonprofits, and industries to prepare students for successful careers; and publicize career pathways and opportunities that the state has to offer.

Getting to the finish line

Willard Gingerich, Montclair State University provost and vice president for academic affairs, called Powered by Publics “unprecedented in its scale and its ambition.” He said Montclair has already achieved impressive outcomes with its enrollment of a diverse student body and increasing its graduation rate.

Willard Gingerich, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Montclair State University.

“Every institution across the country is concerned about retention rates,” Gingerich said. “The more we are an access institution, which is the mission of Montclair State University and the state of New Jersey, the more we attract a very diverse body of students. The more we become open to first-generation students and low-income students, the more we are concerned that they finish.”

Students from so-called access backgrounds are those who are not expected to enroll in college, let alone graduate, Gingerich explained.

Universities look at six-year graduation rates although they want students to graduate in four years. If a student does not graduate within six years, he or she is likely never to graduate, according to many institutions.

“Our graduation rate is higher than the general rate across the country,” Gingerich said.

Rutgers spokesman Neal Buccino said the university is excited to join “Powered by Publics” and is examining opportunities to expand its existing programs that support the consortium’s goals of expanding college access and fostering student success.

“Thanks to our existing academic and career support initiatives, our six-year graduation rate of 80 percent and post-graduation employment rate of 84 percent are consistent or on par with our peers,” Buccino said. “Powered by Publics is in sync with our mission to help first-generation students, and others from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, to excel in college and achieve positive employment outcomes.”

Earning power

A range of public officials and academics have issued calls for colleges and universities to prepare young people for the challenges of an evolving economy. Gingerich cited Gov. Phil Murphy’s new economic plan and its focus on innovation and increased investment in the talents of people “to prepare for and find work that supports and sustains families and investments in our future and that is most efficiently done through education.”

In addition, Gingerich pointed to a Georgetown University report titled The College Payoff: Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings, by Anthony Carnevale, Stephen Rose and Ban Cheah. The authors found bachelor’s degree holders earn 31 percent more than those with an associate degree and 84 percent more than those with just a high school diploma.

“Very simply, it’s better for your lifetime career to get the degree, and it’s better to get it sooner rather than later, in four years rather than six or seven,” Gingerich said. “And finally, anyone’s quality of life is unquestionably enhanced and enriched by higher levels of exposure to the traditions of art, culture and science, which a college education provides.”

The effort also helps the universities’ balance sheets. For example, for every 100 students Montclair State retains per year, the university earns approximately $1.3 million in revenue, which would be lost if those students drop out, Gingerich said.

“We want students to get what they come for in the least amount of time,” Gingerich said. “We keep our expenses at the absolute minimum while at the same time offering the highest quality of education.”

Among students who entered Montclair State in 2010, 65 percent graduated within six years, 12 percent transferred and then graduated from another institution within six years, and 12 percent were still enrolled at Montclair State in 2016, Gingerich said. For students who entered Montclair State in 2012, 71.4 percent graduated within six years, Gingerich said.

“Of course we want them to graduate in four years but they can only do that if they are full-time students and not working,” Gingerich said. “A majority of students who come from access backgrounds are working.”

He said he wants to increase Montclair State’s six-year graduation rate even further and help other universities to do likewise. The 130 universities are sharing best practices on how to lower debt, increase retention and raise graduation rates.

Sharing knowledge

Montclair State has a long-standing affiliation with the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and many of its prior initiatives, including the Personalized Learning Consortium that has been examining the best-practice applications of adaptive technology to a range of common courses.

Montclair State has been designated a Hispanic Serving Institution because more than 25 percent of its students are Hispanic, Gingerich said.

“We are part of this initiative to see how we can learn from each other and achieve our goals,” Gingerich said.

Montclair State formed University College in summer 2018 to serve freshmen and transfer students who have not selected a major or who intend to change their primary course of studies.

The program is part of a national trend to guide students toward a major so they graduate within four years with skills to start a career.

David Hood, associate provost of undergraduate education and dean of University College at Montclair State, assists students in selecting among more than 100 majors based on their interests. He finds many students choose a major based on their parents’ wishes, which is not a recipe for success. He redirects them so they will pursue careers of their own choosing.

David Hood, associate provost for undergraduate education and dean, University College at Montclair State.

Hood advises students to take a path to be admitted to a certain major within a year such as Montclair State University’s most competitive programs in nursing and business. Conversely he directs other students to another major that still aligns with their career goals.

“You can get into business-related fields without having a business degree,” Hood said. “You have Fortune 500 companies, Morgan Stanley and financial institutions, who hire psychologists. They hire English and history majors. They want people who can demonstrate a skill set such as critical thinking and being able to analyze. That’s what we are doing at University College and at Montclair in general.”

Gingerich said some students have earned more than 120 credits but have not graduated due to a lack of guidance during the first two years. As a result, these students took courses without working toward a major.

“A fundamental contribution of University College is to have assessment advising in place that helps the student find exactly or most precisely the major in which they will flourish and not have to change their major because they are running out of steam their junior year,” Gingerich said.

“The whole idea is all of these 130 campuses will be a learning community,” Hood said. “We will be learning from them and they will be learning from us. We will be benefitting from their growing pains and mistakes and they will likewise be benefitting from our growing pains and mistakes.”

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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