In 1997, the state initiated the Outstanding Scholars Recruitment Program (OSRP), with the goal of keeping our top high school students in-state by funding merit-based scholarships at New Jersey colleges. Over the next nine years, the program evolved into New Jersey’s primary merit-based aid program, awarding almost 10,000 scholarships and increasing the number of high-achieving, OSRP-caliber New Jersey students at our colleges by approximately 50%.
Participating institutions have uniformly reported overwhelmingly positive results. A 2004 survey of Rutgers OSRP students, three-quarters of whom had turned down offers from out-of-state colleges, found that 98% cited the OSRP scholarship as the reason they chose Rutgers. At the College of New Jersey, 94% of its OSRP graduates remain New Jersey residents – the majority employed in engineering or the sciences, fields crucial to New Jersey’s high-tech economy. Measured against any conceivable standard, the program was a resounding success.
Yet for the second consecutive year, Governor Corzine has refused to fund the OSRP in his proposed budget. Instead, the Governor has again earmarked the money for another merit-based program called NJSTARS, which allows the top 20 percent of each high school’s graduating class to attend a two-year community college for free. Jane Oates, the Governor’s senior policy advisor on higher education, considers the program a replacement for OSRP and claims that it stretches state dollars more, since community college tuition is cheaper.
Our colleges have already begun to feel the effects of last year’s decision. With NJSTARS in place of OSRP last year, over 32,000 of our students left the state for college, while only 5,600 entered – the worst disparity in the nation. Among our very best students, the numbers were even worse – some 70% of them attended college out-of-state. And when these students search for internships, jobs, and graduate schools, they are much less likely to return to the Garden State – sapping our state of its best students and hurting our economy in the long run.
It’s not hard to see why NJSTARS was ineffective at stopping this crippling “brain drain”. The kind of students that the OSRP attracted – those with an SAT score of over 1350 and/or in the top 10% of their class – almost never consider attending community colleges, no matter how much tuition assistance is provided. To most OSRP-caliber students, NJSTARS is no incentive at all. Instead, given the skyrocketing price of tuition, they are almost compelled to attend those out-of-state institutions that are zealously courting them with lucrative financial aid offers. And when these students leave New Jersey, their new state gets a great bargain – we have footed the education bill for these students for thirteen years, but four years later, it is another state’s economy that benefits from New Jersey’s best students.
So although we consistently rank among the top in the nation in K-12 spending, without the OSRP much of that money serves only to fuel the economies of other states. NJSTARS is a worthwhile program in its own right, but as long as it presents our top students with a Hobson’s choice between receiving state merit aid or attending a four-year college, we cannot expect it to keep our best students in-state like the OSRP did. And by ensuring that some of our finest graduates stayed within New Jersey’s economy, the OSRP helped us achieve a far greater return on our K-12 investment.
After all, our OSRP scholars represented the very best products of New Jersey’s educational system – indeed, given the strength of our schools, they were perhaps some of the finest students in the nation. Yet we have become the only state in the country that makes so little effort at keeping our brightest students in the state for college. Even when the OSRP was fully funded in 2005, it cost the state less than $14 million – compare this to Georgia, which provided $390 million that same year for merit scholarships alone.
So when other states entice our best students with generous scholarships, and the only merit aid we offer them is tied to attending a two-year community college, it is not hard to see why so many of them have little choice but to leave the state for college. We have poured billions of dollars every year into their education, shaping them into the leaders of tomorrow, only to see them plucked off the vine by other states. They have already recognized the worth of our top students; why haven’t we? The OSRP was a critically important program that successfully addressed one of the most serious problems facing our state today. Abolishing it last year has already proved to be a short-sighted educational and economic calamity; for the state’s long-term economic health, it is vital that Governor Corzine and the legislature make sure to restore the OSRP in this year’s budget.