In the August 31 issue of U.S. 1, former college presidents William G. Bowen and Michael S. McPherson, using the tools of economics, surveyed the landscape of higher education in America and made recommendations about what should be done to fix persistent problems.

But the view looks a bit different closer to the ground, where Jianping Wang, president of Mercer County Community College, is launching a mini education reform program of her own. Since Wang became head of the college last year, she has tried to make it more responsive to the needs of the students, and more oriented towards getting them what they want the most: a job after graduation.

“If you look at any research, the number one goal that individuals seek in higher education is to have a better career, to have a better profession, and to have a better chance for gainful employment,” says Wang, who will speak Thursday, September 8 at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce (see page 5). Later that day, in an example of this job preparation emphasis, the college will hold an open house for anyone interested in its new certification courses for healthcare and highway construction (see page 6).

“No one goes to college just for the heck of it. Most people go to college for the very specific goal of getting a good job,” she says. “And most parents I’ve met tell me their number one consideration when choosing which college to send their children to is how likely their kids will be to be financially independent of their support. I jokingly say to my kids, ‘when you graduate, I want you o be off my payroll.’ We cannot work until we are 100 years old. We cannot mortgage our retirements so our children can stay in our homes until they are old. It’s good to be financially independent. It’s good for their heart, it’s good for their souls, and its good for our wallets and their wallets.”

Community college has always been more vocationally oriented than four-year programs. But Wang is making Mercer County more geared towards the job market than ever before. She has pursued partnerships with local businesses to give students paid internships and on-the-job training programs that are turned into full-time jobs after graduation.

This program is also an attempt to address an issue that Bowen and McPherson have raised in their new book, “Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education,” which is the relatively low rate of college completion. Many students who have to work to pay for tuition and living expenses end up doing so at the cost of their academic pursuits, resulting in a lowered graduation rate. Wang believes that paid internships can be a good source of income for students while allowing them to do work that is relevant to their field of study, not interfering with their classwork.

Her pitch to the business community is that the program is a great way to recruit new employees. “You get a chance to shape and mold those future employees, so you don’t have to hire new employees and put them on your payroll, with benefits, and then train them,” Wang says. “It’s very costly. My youngest son graduated in May and he was hired by Dow Chemical. He is working in Texas, and his starting salary was around $80,000. They put him on three months of training. That three months of an $80,000 paycheck produced nothing, and that’s a pure loss for the employer.”

Wang says specialized classes and on-the-job internships can help create graduates with the skills that employers want. The first company to partner with MCCC was Genesis Biotechnology Group, based on Waterview Drive in Hamilton. Starting in the fall semester, students studying to be medical office assistants will be able to get paid internships at Genesis while studying at MCCC. Upon graduation, they will be offered full time jobs at Genesis.

In addition to the job internship program, the college has started several other initiatives aimed at job training. It is building a $1.2 million center where students will learn to operate computer controlled manufacturing equipment. The college is also launching its first year of courses in security systems technology, in a course taught by industry professionals. The class focuses on surveillance systems, intrusion detection, and electrical wiring.

This kind of job-oriented approach goes against the traditional rationale for a four-year degree, which is that it teaches students the critical thinking skills and analytical ability to learn how to succeed at an advanced job.

Wang says she recently had a conversation with a business owner who made a practice of only hiring students with bachelor’s degrees for entry-level positions. She says he offered that exact justification for the requirement, but that he balked when asked if his assumptions about critical thinking skills turned out to be true in practice. She says the company and the college are in the midst of a discussion about how to partner to offer paid internships that double as on-the-job training. “I believe this is the future of higher education,” Wang says. “We need to get out of our ivy walls and answer the challenges and respond to the need to reform what we teach.”

Wang also has a different perspective on affordability than Bowen and McPherson. The economists believe that if community college is made free, while more exclusive four-year programs remain relatively expensive, students who really ought to go to four-year institutions will go to community colleges instead because of the distorted financial incentive.

Wang says she couldn’t comment on the political aspects of college tuition reimbursement. Rather, she is focused on making Mercer County as affordable as possible for its students. She notes that New Jersey already has a program called NJSTARS that offers free community college tuition for the top 15 percent of high school graduates. Between this program and federal Pell grants, many students attend MCCC while paying little to no tuition at all.

“I think we’re also doing a good job funding our county community colleges in such a way that we don’t have to skyrocket our tuition,” Wang says. However, there are still students for whom even the modest financial requirements of community college are daunting. Wang says she plans to continue raising money from the community for scholarships to assist the students most in need of financial help.

Broadening access to higher education is a subject near and dear to Wang’s heart. She grew up in China in a very poor family with a clerk father and factory worker mother, and was only able to move up the socioeconomic ladder because of her determination to get an education. She moved to the U.S. in the turmoil of the Tiananmen Square Massacre and has been involved in education here ever since.

Wang says she has seen that money is still a major reason that many students don’t finish college, along with the difficulty of studying while working a full time job. “It’s hard to finish the way higher education is structured,” she says. “We have this academic calendar that works like a charm for us, starting in September, ending in May, and being closed from May to the beginning of September. Our faculty would love to teach from 9 until 2 o’clock. But we have working students who have work schedules from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., or from 4 p.m. to midnight, or evenings and weekends. Their work schedules are all over the map, and we cannot ask those people to change their lives to adapt to our lives. We have to do what our students want.”

Part of the solution to this dilemma lies in technology. Wang says MCCC is moving towards offering more online courses, including a new program in funeral science. She also wants to make more services available remotely, such as library resources, registration, and other administrative tasks. She says higher education must change its ways to suit a generation of students who are used to communicating by text message, and reading information on tablets and smartphones.

Wang and Bowen and McPherson are all on the same page when it comes to the need for education reform.

“Usually academia is out in front of change, but this time I think we are way behind,” Wang says. “We are way behind the eight-ball. This technological change is pushing us to make the change. Unfortunately many of our academia members are not quite comfortable with it, and some of them may not even know how, so we really have to push ourselves and make the change so that we are not left behind and our students are not paying the price.”

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