Even in New Jersey's highly educated workforce, where 44% of adults have at least a two-year degree, almost a fifth of adults age 25- 64 have started college but never finished.

According to a new report, "Close But No Degree" released by the Rutgers Center for Women and Work, inexpensive policy changes can enable the state's agencies and colleges to improve college completion rates.

"An educated workforce is important to New Jersey's economic viability," says Heather McKay, co-author of the report and director of CWW's Innovative Training and Workforce Development Research and Programs.

"Close, But No Degree" advocates for better integration of higher education opportunities into the state workforce development system. For example, the report recommends expanding an existing policy that helps workers receiving unemployment insurance gain college credit.

McKay says the new reality of New Jersey's labor market will be that good jobs require post-secondary credentials and while New Jersey fares a little better than the rest of the nation, its not by much. "18.2% of New Jerseyans possess some college but have no degree, so there are still things we can be doing better."

"Close, But No Degree" advocates for better integration of higher education opportunities into the state workforce development system. For example, the report recommends expanding an existing policy that helps workers receiving unemployment insurance gain college credit.

Cecilia Grobard, a Watchung, NJ resident, is among the beneficiaries of this policy. After losing her job of 31 years in the airline industry, she used the unemployment insurance program's benefits to complete a bachelor's degree, graduating from Rutgers in 2004 with high honors.

"It is a wonderful sense of accomplishment that would have been financially difficult for me to do without this benefit," says Grobard, who graduated from Rutgers on the same day as her daughter, Talia, and immediately got a job as an Italian teacher at North Plainfield High School in Plainfield, NJ.

Other recommendations include:

  • Improving a 2007 law designed to facilitate the move from community colleges to New Jersey public four-year colleges and universities so that credit transfer is more seamless.
  • Identifying students poised to complete college, specifically those who lack 12 credits or less (near-completers) and provide them with flexible options and support services, such as online learning and counseling.
  • Developing a formal collaboration between the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and Higher Education.
  • Providing assistance to help students succeed in degree programs, including strong case management and alternative routes to earning college credit, such as conferring credit for work experience.
  • Identifying mechanisms to fund tuition and programs for adult students based on need.

"When workers have invested so much in degrees they were unable to finish, it makes good policy and financial sense to devise solutions that help them achieve their goals," says Elizabeth Nisbet, CWW Postdoctoral Research Associate.

The goal is to strengthen state efforts to increase degree completion rates in New Jersey, added McKay. "By focusing on funding tuition; providing student supports; recruiting students for completion; proving flexible delivery, and giving credit for alternative activities."