New Jersey Summit Conference Promotes Student Success

William Paterson AFT Local leaders with Sen. Bob Gordon and students
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William Paterson AFT Local leaders with Sen. Bob Gordon and students

For the first time, state legislators, faculty, staff, administrators, students, alumni, and business leaders joined together in one meeting at William Paterson University to discuss and reach agreement on practical solutions to promote student success in higher education. Sponsored by the William Paterson University American Federation of Teachers Union and Faculty Senate, but including representatives from other New Jersey state colleges and universities, the May 16 Student Success Conference focused on helping students overcome academic, financial and social challenges to graduation, employment and intellectual growth.

State legislators Assemblyman Joe Cryan, who introduced more than 20 higher education reform bills this session, and Senate Higher Education Committee Chair Sandra Cunningham led off a panel focusing on higher education and public policy. “Our State leaders need to hear from students and alumni about the obstacles to staying in school as well as from those of us in the classrooms and support services who work closely with students every day,” said Dr. Susanna Tardi, Professor of Sociology at William Paterson.

From rising tuition and fees to work and family demands, a panel of students and recent grads talked about the realities of trying to graduate in four years. One nontraditional student tearfully thanked the several hundred attendees for all the support she received when returning after having left school decades ago to care for a sick parent.

The impact of race and class on graduation rates were discussed in detail as William Paterson serves many first generation college students and the children of working families from urban Passaic County. Existing gaps could be further extended if “performance-based-funding” proposed legislation were implemented penalizing schools for lower-graduation rates, according to Dr. Charley Flint from William Paterson’s Sociology department.

Graduation rates serve as an even weaker determinant of performance for schools such as William Paterson and sister schools New Jersey City University and Kean, which all serve students from urban populations with large, low-performing school districts. These students are often quite capable of excellent performance, but require more in-depth advisement and academic support to compensate for initial shortcomings, according to Luis Escobar, of William Paterson’s Academic Support Center.

Having a working relationship with university management and true shared governance is critical to cultivating the environment for student success, said Dr. Donna Fengya, from William Paterson’s Math Department, chairing a panel with William Paterson Provost and Executive Vice President Warren Sandmann, who decried the lack of state institutional support for higher education.

Vincent Vicari, Assistant Director of the Bergen County Community College Small Business Development Center, said “Employers are looking for graduates with problem solving skills and the ability to continue learning and adapting to the changing economy.” The business owners and leaders on his panel discussed the range of hard and soft skills they look for in new hires. They focused on the importance of effective communication skills, critical thinking, the ability to work well with others, and professional conduct.

One of the outcomes of the conference was a recognition that student success means different things to different people and that effective solutions to promote student success need to be flexible enough to address a wide range of circumstances. “The problems in education are systemic problems that cannot be resolved with “quick fix” solutions,” said Tardi. “Higher education should be about more than just graduation rates or job placements. We need to provide students with knowledge and skills that will enable them to have career flexibility in a changing job market, and to be prepared to assume responsible positions to become effective citizens and leaders of tomorrow,” she added.