College degree still matters — and is worth cost — state’s higher ed chief says

For New Jersey Higher Education Secretary Zakiya Smith Ellis, there isn’t much that equals the value of post-secondary education.

“The economic returns, the amount of money you make if you have a college degree versus not, on average, that number continues to outpace a high school diploma,” Ellis said to the crowd of around 75 gathered education and industry professionals.

Ellis was addressing a question she claims to be hearing every now and again: Is college still worth it? She said these questions stem from concerns that too many people are getting degrees, thus bringing their value down.

Ellis said the number, which continues to outpace a high school diploma, has grown more in New Jersey that it has nationally.

“Over the past several decades, more people have had college degrees in New Jersey, while the returns continue to increase,” said Ellis.

She said the labor market will continue to reward a highly educated workforce.

The Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce, a Rutherford-based business service organization, hosted its 2019 Education Summit on Tuesday at Ramapo College. Ellis gave the opening address.

The goal of the summit was to address the struggle some businesses face when finding, training and retaining good employees.

“(Parents and students) are concerned,” Ellis said. “They’re concerned about the price (of higher education) and they’re concerned about the value.”

Ellis said students — and their parents — want to know if they’re going to get a respectable job when they graduate and learn something while there that is relevant to their life after that education.

“We’re a state that needs higher education to thrive, to be affordable and to be relevant to students,” she said. “Students need to be able to repay their loans, but the content of their education also needs to be meaningful.”

The panelists at the event included officials from several New Jersey colleges.

Ellis said not to forget the students who aren’t 18 years old and right out of high school, but rather the ones who have families of their own and know the value of post-secondary education because they’ve been working without it.

A temporary solution to address the initial problems of affordability that Ellis said she and her office are working on is piloting and testing the option of free community college to a limited number of students.

A plan should be out within the next month with Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget proposal, Ellis says.

The panel discussion that followed Ellis’ remarks was an interactive one and featured senior educators and administrators.

They included: Thomas Eastwick, founder and president of Eastwick College and the HoHoKus School of Trade & Technical Sciences; Peter Mercer, president of Ramapo College; Francine Andrea, vice president of administration at Felician University; Michael J. Smith, president of Berkeley College; Michael Redmond, president of Bergen Community College; Luke Schultheis, vice president for environment, planning & effectiveness at Fairleigh Dickinson University; and Virginia Bender, assistant to president for planning and chief of staff at Saint Peter’s University.

The panel was moderated by Tammy Molinelli from the Bergen County Workforce Development Board.