Strengthening New Jersey’s Workforce and Making Higher Education More Affordable

Written by
Feb. 3, 2022

by TJ Sell, MPA '22 for Annotations Blog

It’s no secret that having a postsecondary credential improves your career outcomes and is associated with higher earnings over your lifetime. Cue the college wage premium, a term economists have coined to describe the difference in earnings between college and high school graduates.

While over 90 percent of New Jersey’s population 25 years and older has at least a high school diploma, only 48 percent have at least an associate’s degree and only an additional 3 percent have a high-quality certificate. These attainment rates differ based on race and ethnicity, with smaller proportions of Black, Latinx, and Native Americans earning at least associate’s degrees than the State’s white and Asian/Pacific Islander residents.

These educational attainment differences translate to large wage gaps. Bachelor’s-level degree holders in New Jersey earn 76 percent more in median earnings than those with only a high school diploma, while associate’s-level residents earn 20 percent more than high school graduates.

New Jersey’s tuition rates, much like those in the rest of the United States, are high for many people seeking a postsecondary degree and would be out of reach for some without state financial aid. The average annual in-state tuition and fees for a four-year degree from a public university in the United States is $9,349. New Jersey tops this figure with an average of $14,360 in tuition and fees, coming in fifth behind Illinois, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Vermont in most expensive average tuition across public institutions.

Secretary Dr. Brian Bridges oversees the implementation of the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education’s strategic plan, a roadmap for New Jersey higher education to address these trends and support students. Bridges serves as New Jersey’s Secretary of Higher Education in Governor Phil Murphy’s administration, leading the State’s higher education vision since his appointment in November 2020. He has previously served as Vice President of Research and Membership Engagement at the United Negro College Fund; Vice Provost for Diversity, Access, and Equity at Ohio University; and, Associate Director of the Center for Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity at the American Council on Education.

I sat down with Secretary Bridges late last year to chat with him about his Office’s priorities, including making college more affordable for New Jersey’s residents and continuing the State’s role as a national leader in the innovation economy. 

Our conversation, which took place on December 21, 2021, has been edited for length and clarity.

Headshot of Dr. Brian Bridges, Secretary of Higher Education for New Jersey

You just completed your first year in Office – congratulations. I saw your inaugural State of Higher Education Address where you and Governor Murphy laid out the accomplishments of OSHE and also the road ahead for New Jersey. What have been your top priorities since taking office, and looking forward, what are you hoping to tackle in the next year?

One priority has been really driving our affordability agenda where we can lower the cost for students in New Jersey and their families. New Jersey is a high-income state, so many students and their families are able to afford to pay for college with little to no need for state financial aid. However, there are a substantial number of students – tens of thousands of students – who benefit from state support, particularly since New Jersey is a high-tuition state. 

And then, I ask myself, “affordability for what?” Yes, we’re getting more students to college because it’s more affordable but to what end? We want to make sure they’re getting to college and completing degrees so that they can contribute to the state workforce but also contribute to their own well-being and that of their families and communities. We want to make sure students get to college, whether it’s 2-year or 4-year, but also that they get through college so that they can earn a credential that will allow them to earn a meaningful wage and live a very productive life.

We’ve established the “65 by 25 attainment goal,” whereby 65% of working-age New Jerseyans will have a high-quality credential or degree by 2025. One of the ways we want to accomplish this is through engaging the “Some College, No Degree” population, who have earned some college credits but never earned a degree. This population ranges from the student who started two years ago and stopped to someone who might have earned 90 credits 30 years ago and never finished. We want to build out incentives for New Jerseyans and institutions of higher education to improve their degree attainment and get these students over the finish line.

I want to drill into the “65 by 25” state goal with you a bit more. Can you lay out the theory of change behind why this goal is important for the state?

New Jersey is the innovation state. Electricity, Bell Labs, GE were all started here. We’ve continued building that innovation economy, but in order to continue to do that, we have to continue to invest through our workforce. If we don’t invest fully now, we’ll look up 20-30 years later and say “you know when New Jersey used to be a leader in that? Or when they used to be a leading state in that issue or topic?” 

Getting students into and through the innovation pipeline helps contribute to the overall workforce and keeps New Jersey on the leading edge of the innovation economy across the country. Stevens Institute of Technology and New Jersey Institute of Technology both had their highest undergraduate and graduate enrollments ever. So, I think some of our emotions and actions around the innovation economy are working. We want to see our institutions, which have the biggest labs in the state and have the biggest innovation agendas across the state, continue to attract large student enrollments.

Identifying and connecting with the “Some College, No Degree” population is important to re-engage them in the higher education and workforce pipeline. But as you mentioned, it’s also important to show them how these credentials can improve their lives, employment outcomes, and wages. What’s the standard for the “high-quality” credential you hope these New Jerseyans will receive?

We want to promote credentials that are industry-valued from credible institutions aligned with in-demand fields. We don’t want to encourage people to get credentials in fields that are already overly saturated in New Jersey. It’s hard to discourage people from getting a degree in the area that you want, but we can provide resources to help folks understand where the in-demand fields are and what credentials they need to get a job. As we connect with these people, we can provide that information so that they understand which resources are available to them, such as institutional degree audits. 

I’d also mention that we want to continue positioning New Jersey as a leader in the clean energy economy. We want to make sure there are students with the talent and skills to fill green jobs that are necessary to complete construction of new projects in the state, like the New Jersey Wind Port. We can also talk about making sure workers in existing fields, like heating and air conditioning technology, understand how their skills transfer over to the clean energy space to ensure we’re meeting the demand for current and future workforce needs.

You mentioned affordability as another big priority for OSHE, so I want to discuss New Jersey’s Community College Opportunity Grant (CCOG) and the Garden State Guarantee (GSG). Can you describe what impacts these programs have on students?

CCOG has been signed into law, and the program enables qualifying students whose families earn less than $65K/year to earn two years of tuition- and fees-free at community colleges in New Jersey. This is a life changing program. This past year, over 34,000 students took advantage of the program. 34,000 students! These are students who may not have gone to community college or who may have had to stop out or may have had to work two or three jobs during their degree. So, the fact that 34,000 students took advantage of the program shows me that there’s a demand.

GSG then provides funding for the third and fourth years of qualifying students’ 4-year degrees. Students whose families earn less than $65K/year can get two years of tuition and fees-free at four-year institutions in the State. So, in theory, a student who starts at a community college and qualifies for CCOG can get their first two years at the community college tuition-free and their final two years at a four-year institution through GSG tuition-free. This enables them to earn a four-year degree tuition and fees-free, which is tremendous!

Next year will be the first year we implement GSG. Looking at the data, over 22,000 students can take advantage of the program in the first year. This means that approximately 40,000 New Jerseyans will earn a four-year degree tuition and fee-free with the combination of CCOG and GSG. 

To close out, I want to ask about your thoughts on federal support for New Jersey’s higher education system. The U.S. Congress’s Build Back Better Act, which is stalled in the Senate as of early January 2022, doesn’t have Free Community College for All like President Joe Biden wanted, but it does provide other higher education support, including increasing the Pell grant amount and providing community colleges with college retention and completion grants. 

What type of federal support would you prioritize receiving for New Jersey if Congressional Democrats are able to come together and pass their social spending plan?

A New Jersey college president once told me that in order to prepare for the future, we must invest in college facilities and infrastructure. We’re providing $400M in capital facilities investment, which is great but also a drop in the bucket of what our institutions need. Our institutions have about $12 billion in deferred maintenance costs. Another $1-1.5 billion from the federal government in campus and collegiate infrastructure would go a long way to address our colleges’ needs in the State, including additional classroom spaces.

Headshot of TJ Sells MPA '22
Meet the Author: TJ Sell

TJ Sell is a MPA '22 student at Princeton University's School of Public and International Affairs, where he studies Domestic Policy. Prior to his graduate program, TJ worked at a higher education research and technology firm in Washington, DC, where he completed market research analyses for colleges and led campuses through implementations of student success technologies. He also worked as a data analyst for a PK-12 charter school system and is a 2019-20 US Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Andorra. After graduation, TJ is excited to continue advancing equitable and accessible K-12 and postsecondary education public policy to help students succeed. TJ holds a B.A. in Spanish & Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience from the University of Michigan.