Opinion: An Affordable Path to College the Tech Community Could be Proud Of

Photo: Tyler Seville is Director, Technology and Workforce Development at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. Photo Credit: Courtesy NJBIA
Tyler Seville is Director, Technology and Workforce Development at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. | Courtesy NJBIA

Earlier last month, NJ Spotlight published an article and interactive map, entitled “NJ Colleges: Where Students Pile on the Most Debt.” The article cited a study stating  students at “colleges in New Jersey totaled almost $31,000 per borrower last year and close to two-thirds of all students had taken out at least one loan to pay for their education.” New Jersey ranked the ninth highest state in the country, but was under Pennsylvania and New York which averaged $34,538 and $31,139 per borrower, respectively. 

From the business perspective, college affordability is an important topic as well as the overall value of post-secondary education. The Tech community and state economies benefit as higher education helps individuals become more productive, better skilled employees and less likely to demand select public services. 

For many, additional funding for students to obtain a postsecondary credential seems like the silver bullet. However, given state and national funding priorities, there are several other ways New Jersey can consider making a postsecondary education more affordable, while also improving the value proposition of our higher education institutions, at no additional costs to the state. 

While none of these are that silver bullet, here are five ways New Jersey can make college more affordable while preparing students for employment:

1. Provide a variety of stackable credentials

Academic and industry recognized certificates, licenses and associate degrees can offer a more affordable first step in pursuing higher education. These credentials may vary based on institution and industry, but can help job seekers graduate anywhere from six months to two years, ready for employment. In fact sometimes less education is worth more. For example a one-year information technology certificate holder can earn up to $72,000 per year compared with $54,000 per year for the average Bachelor’s degree holder. While some post-secondary credentials, like an associate’s degree, offer distinct pathways to higher education, academic and industry driven certificates should also be “stackable,” counting towards a degree.

2. Expand competency-based education programs

Competency-based models in higher education allow students to obtain credit for what they already know. Unlike a semester long course, competency-based models reward proven subject mastery and student knowledge rather than time spent in class. Some of these models include the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), Advanced Placement (AP) testing and Portfolio Assessments, typically covering lower level course work. While popular in many of our community colleges, Thomas Edison State University is a national leader in competency-based education programs.

3. Offer more dual enrollment courses

Dual enrollment programs are another way to reduce redundancy in education and reward student learning. High school students are allowed to earn college credit by taking college courses at their own school, online or at their local post-secondary institutions. These programs directly reduce the time and the tuition cost to complete an associate’s or bachelor’s degree and are growing in popularity at many comprehensive and vocational high schools. According to the U.S. Department of Education, dual enrollment programs have shown to increase the chances of high school completion, college enrollment, and degree attainment for students from low-income backgrounds.

4.Enhance education with online learning

Online learning can fill in curriculum gaps and add flexibility often at a low cost. While hybrid courses, which blend in-person and online instruction, have shown to help students do about as well or better than those in traditional lectures, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which are solely online courses, support motivated learners and bridge the gap between what colleges teach and what employers need. Most of the online and technology infrastructure is in place for many colleges and universities, it is a matter of understanding the costs and benefits of the courses.

5.Keeping employment as the ultimate goal

Finding a meaningful career is often a primary motivation for many going to college, especially to the growing number of students working while pursuing a post-secondary education. While semester-long internships and externships are effective, early exposure to careers and how they align with college majors and life goals can help motivate students to take the “right courses the first time,” graduate on time and prevent them from spending additional time and money in school.

[Tyler Seville is Director, Technology & Workforce Development at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. ]

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