“It’s not just about getting students ready for college, it’s also about making sure that colleges are ready for students.”

– New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis

Over 200 NJEA members attended the 2019 NJEA Higher Education Conference held in Princeton on April 12-13. The conference offered a variety of workshop topics for NJEA members working in New Jersey’s 19 community colleges, including academic freedom, social media for organizers and workplace health and safety.

In his opening remarks, NJEA Vice President Sean M. Spiller spoke of the need to maintain New Jersey’s excellent public schools through various initiatives. He singled out the importance of making the choice to major in education an attractive one for college students.

“We know how great our schools are in New Jersey,” said Spiller. “We need to make sure that we continue to attract the very best to the profession.”

Shortage of education candidates increases

Unfortunately, colleges and universities across the state are seeing a drop in the number of candidates who enroll in teacher preparation programs and other course work that leads to certification for public school educators. School districts throughout New Jersey struggle to recruit an ethnically diverse faculty because of the added decrease in enrollment of people of color in teacher certification programs.

Significant increases in health insurance premium contributions because of Chapter 78, reductions in pension benefits, and increased work responsibilities are a few of the conditions that have made the teaching profession a less attractive career choice for many college students.

In addition, the high cost of attending colleges and universities, and achieving teacher certification, is not offset by potential income after entering the education profession.

NJEA is working closely with Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, legislators and New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith-Ellis to remedy these issues.

2019 Higher Ed Conference

More affordable options

The governor’s recent state budget proposal provides $2.57 billion to higher education, promoting access to a more affordable education for underserved student populations through $58.5 million to support free county college enrollment and $438 million for Tuition Aid Grants.

This year’s budget, however, does not increase direct aid to community colleges. Costs at community colleges have increased while the number of full-time staff positions have decreased. Existing faculty and staff have less time to devote to meeting student needs and helping them succeed.

NJEA is urging all legislators to support tuition-free options for students attending New Jersey’s county colleges. These options make higher education more attainable and attractive for more students, help alleviate the student debt crisis, encourage more people to raise families in New Jersey, and help build the educator workforce we need to maintain excellence in our public schools.

NJ Secretary of Higher Education addresses the issues

As the headliner for the conference, Smith-Ellis presented key points from the Murphy administration’s newly minted plan for higher education.

The plan, titled “Where Opportunity Meets Innovation: A Student-Centered Vision for New Jersey Higher Education,” includes a vision statement, a student bill of rights and a map for implementation. The goal of the initiative is to unite New Jersey’s 78 higher education institutions and boost the state’s school-to-workforce pipeline.

Details of the plan can be found here.

The secretary acknowledged that the rising cost of higher education is often an insurmountable challenge for students who lack the resources to afford college tuition.

“We have got to put a comprehensive approach in place for what we are doing to provide for the actual cost of higher education,” said Smith-Ellis. “Financial literacy is great, but financial literacy does not actually pay for college.”

She also addressed the importance of unionism in higher education and stressed the value of administrators collaborating with staff in the best interest of students.

“When you talk to union members you are talking to the folks who are in direct contact with the people who you are trying to help,” said Smith-Ellis. “It’s not just about getting students ready for college. It’s also about making sure that colleges are ready for students.”

Smith-Ellis welcomed comments and questions from the audience after her presentation. Many NJEA higher education members took the opportunity to have a dialog with the secretary as she responded to their concerns about funding, the continuing trend among college administrators of replacing full-time higher education staff with adjuncts, and other issues.

Future events: The NJEA 2020 Higher Education Conference is scheduled to be held on April 17-18.

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