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Project Title:New Jersey College Promise Action NetworkInstitution Name:New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities (NJASCU) Innovation Category:Accountability and Advocacy Project Director:Paul R. Shelly, Director of Communications & MarketingContact Information:(609) 989-1100, prshelly@njascu.orgWebsite:www.njcollegepromise.com, www.njascu.org
Project Description:

Since 2009, the project is a website and email-based advocacy program to educate and engage citizens supporting the New Jersey state colleges and universities on policy issues affecting public higher education, facilitate voluntary communication with their elected officials about policy priorities, and inform them of policy actions related to college access, affordability and capacity.

The Network evolved from recommendations of NJ Association of State Colleges and Universities’ (NJASCU) NJ College Promise project (2008), with the input of top national and state advisors, on how to make our colleges a higher public priority, aligned with a public agenda.

Currently, about 9,000 individuals have signed up with the Network.  The advocacy program is sophisticated, allowing extensive analysis of email messages sent to elected officials broken down by college, type of constituency and legislative district. The Network is supported by its own website, separate from the Association’s. The add-on cost for the system and special grassroots consulting is about $45,000 (first year) and $30,000 (successive years).

  • Educate citizens on specific issues, and of pending state decisions related to higher education access, affordability and capacity (analysis of data from each action alert).
  • Raise public awareness of the value and the needs of the state colleges and universities, clarifying prevalent misconceptions (statewide public opinion polling, analysis of media coverage).
  • Help develop sound public judgment on these issues by facilitating communications between citizens and elected state officials (emergence of public policy priorities reflecting information sent through the Network).
  • Gain citizen support for state action that increases access, affordability and capacity, underscoring the tie between the state colleges and a state agenda for long-term prosperity (analysis of data from each action alert).
  • About 9,000 individuals signed up with the program in 2008-2010, from a data base of 60,000; principally represented by alumni, students, parents and college staff.
  • Messages sent by Network members (three-four annually) in support of state appropriations and policy priorities number several thousand each year.  Messages directly from each president to constituents of that college have the highest response rate.  Also, higher responders are students and parents, not alumni.  The governor and some legislators respond to all email/messages, indicating effectiveness.
  • Achievement of most of the advocacy goals supported by Network messages: focus of our new governor to make higher education a priority; support for trustee autonomy; support to expand college capacity; reversal of a decision to merge two institutions with very different missions; restoration of funding cuts proposed for 2009-2010; and restoration of some funding for student aid in the FY 2010-2011 budget.
  • Qualitative positive results include presidents’ views that the Network supports college/university information dissemination efforts, and feedback from elected officials that the Network provided them with useful information about their constituents’ views.
Challenges/Problems Encountered:
  • A major effort up front was to identify a vendor and consultant to supply and manage a highly technical software system to ensure effectiveness and to build the data base, coordinating with nine colleges.
  • As a 501(c)(3), NJASCU is not authorized to engage in “lobbying.” Once operational, a key challenge was assuring those elected officials who received messages from constituents through the Network, that the program was educational, policy-oriented, and pertained to state priorities, and did not represent an attempt to sway votes or elections. One-on-one conversations between state college leaders and legislators and the governor’s staff helped clear this up and prepare offices for the possibility of a large volume of messages. Messages stick to broad policy matters and appropriations, not particular bills.
  • Concerns about cost were addressed by clarifying that support for the program came from the Association and college/university foundations, not directly from the institutions’ state funded budgets.
  • Institutional concerns were about privacy rights, over-communication and potential for confusion with other communication to constituency groups (e.g., alumni) who were being contacted for other purposes.   
  • A broader challenge includes managing and expanding the program (a significant investment in staff time and coordination) and overcoming the tendency to revert focus to traditional activities tied to institutional-specific goals and communication patterns.
Evaluation Approach:NJASCU’s evaluative approach includes each of the areas listed under measurable outcomes above tied directly to annual goals adopted by the Association’s Board, as well as development of new ways to gauge the perceptions of state college leaders that the Network activities are helping support public judgment about higher education policy. Another important evaluative step will be sampling elected state officials and their staffs about the helpfulness of the Network in informing their views and policymaking on matters pertaining to public higher education in the state of New Jersey.
Potential for Replication:The existence of an independent (freestanding), statewide citizens’ advocacy group for higher education can help public colleges build a stronger constituency for policy action in the state capital. Keys to the success of the program are: a foundation of policy analysis built on empirical data, including public opinion polling; buy-in from all institutions involved; a coherent statewide communications plan tied to traditional means of public policy advocacy; staff and consultant dedication to success; and perceptions by a majority of elected officials that the program is policy based and educational, not electoral. NJASCU feels strongly that effective advocacy of public colleges and universities requires this kind of sophisticated, integrated, empirically-based effort at the state level.
CEO-to-CEO Contact:Michael W. Klein , CEOmwklein@njascu.org
(609) 989-1100
Date Published: Tuesday, March 29, 2011