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From the moment of its inception, the Commission on Higher Education has promoted three overarching goals to sustain and improve higher education in New Jersey: access, affordability, and excellence. The record shows remarkable progress toward the achievement of these goals during the commission's seven-year life.
The secret has long been out that students receive high-quality, affordable higher education here. A major reason for this has been the unrelenting emphasis New Jersey places on student financial aid. A firm belief in the premise that no student should be denied post-secondary educational opportunity by dint of socioeconomic status has driven us to serve needy students and their families. Many financial aid administrators and other professionals around the country recognize our state as the national leader in providing need-based student aid.
Since its genesis in 1977, New Jersey's Tuition Aid Grant (TAG) program has become a national showcase. TAG concentrates on students and families seeking to pay college bills. It has exemplified success, as acting Governor Donald DiFrancesco and the Legislature acknowledged last month when they increased funding to enable TAG awards for all eligible students.
For more than a decade, the state has also furnished TAG awards to part-time students who participate in the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF). The state recognizes the pressures non-traditional students face in seeking college degrees. Last year, more than 500 EOF students received part-time TAG awards. These students' life circumstances prevented them from carrying full-time academic loads, but they still required support to meet their financial needs.
The Commission on Higher Education strongly advocates the extension of TAG awards to all part-time students who meet eligibility standards. An externally commissioned study last fall led the higher education community to include a request in the fiscal-year 2002 budget for $9.8 to $11 million to fund such awards.
The rationale for this request is clear. The growth and vitality of the state's economy depend on it. Despite strenuous efforts, part-time students, many of whom are low income and minority students, remain disproportionately underrepresented among those obtaining college and university degrees. Yet these segments of our population will make up an increasing portion of our labor force. New Jersey can ill afford to miss the chance to revitalize its high-tech worker corps by meeting the financial needs of part-time students.
We need to make a course correction in student assistance policy. Absent a conscientious effort to capture students who may be falling through the cracks, we may lose a prime opportunity to answer the oft-expressed pleas of employers for qualified people to sustain their businesses. Part-time students need TAG, too, and they deserve it now.
Al Koeppe of Manasquan is chairman of the Commission on Higher Education and president of PSE&G.