NEW JERSEY: “THE EDUCATION STATE” – The “Case” for a Second Nickname

Feb 16, 2022

By Steve Reynolds, President, Independent Colleges and Universities of New Jersey[1]

Last September, I posted a blog outlining my light-hearted but sincere proposal to create a more representative and accurate second nickname for our State.[2] Citing the rankings issued in May of 2021 by US News & World Report, I offered that it was time for our State to take advantage of the number 1 ranking we received in education from that highly respected publication by finally calling us what we truly are – the Education State.

The feedback I have received has varied. Most responders have reacted positively. Some have raised concerns about losing our iconic ‘Garden State’ moniker and license plates, which is something that I, as a life-long New Jersey resident, did not – and would never, ever – propose. Others have raised questions about why and how. I will address below each of the questions that have been raised and thereby state my ‘case’ (as a former litigator and currently an advocate for institutions of higher education in New Jersey) for adding this prideful and earned nickname and, yes, a new license plate option. [3]

Question 1: What’s Wrong with the ‘Garden State’?

Answer: Nothing.

We obviously must retain the ‘Garden State,’ as it has become synonymous with New Jersey since it became our first and only official nickname in 1954 – although, frankly, for reasons I still do not fully understand. In fact, the actual history behind our current, and only, official nickname is curious and is likely unknown to most of our citizens.

New Jersey is among a small minority of states that has just one official nickname[4] and the one we settled on back in 1954 has generated some debate about both its accuracy and its current value. Historians have questioned its origin for years, but the most accepted version is that it came from a speech made at a Centennial celebration in 1876 in Philadelphia by a lawyer/farmer/politician from Camden named Abraham Browning. In an effort to promote his produce business, this orator referred to New Jersey as “an immense barrel filled with good things to eat and open at both ends, with Pennsylvanians grabbing from one end and New Yorkers from the other.”[5]

So, our eventual official nickname was perhaps the first self-deprecating acceptance of our counter-intuitive ‘inferiority complex’ from being in the shadow of both Philly and NYC!

I am certainly not the first to question both the bona fides and benefits of having us solely identified with gardens. Governor Robert Meyner, who was our chief executive when state legislators passed a law formally adding ‘Garden State’ to the bottom of our license plates in 1954, was probably the most relevant objector. In his effort to veto this legislation, Meyner stated the following:

“New Jersey is noted for its great strides in manufacturing, mining, commerce, construction, power, transportation, shipping, merchandising, fishing, and recreation, as well as in agriculture. I do not believe that the average citizen of New Jersey regards his state as more peculiarly identifiable with gardening or farming than any of its other industries or occupations.”

Alas, the Governor’s veto effort failed and that is how we became identified as the ‘Garden State.’

Let me emphasize again that I am not suggesting that we re-write history and remove the ‘Garden State” from either our license plates or our psyche.[6] We just need to add a more representative and factually supportable nickname…one that would unleash immediate and lasting value for our residents, teachers, students, schools, and the companies that reside here. I consider this proposal not to be audacious, but, instead, rather obvious.

Question 2: Why the ‘Education State’?

Answer: Because it is supported by compelling data and touts what we should be best known for – if not in 1954, then certainly in 2022.

The US News & World Report top ranking, and what it represents, has been earned and we should be immensely proud of it – as taxpayers who funded it, parents who demanded it, teachers who have made it happen, and state legislators who mandated it over several decades. The criteria utilized for this ranking included high school math and reading scores, high school and college graduation rates, how prepared our high school students are for college and how prepared our college graduates are for life upon graduation. In other words, New Jersey has the smartest kids in the country. And this is not an unsupported boast. It is supported by this extraordinary recognition from a frequently cited and highly respected source.

It is because we have so many intelligent and well-prepared students that many colleges from other states actively ‘poach’ these students, resulting in the disturbingly high ‘out-migration’ of New Jersey high school graduates that Governor Murphy cited during his recent press conference[7], during which he and other state officials stated their intention to take action to address this outflow of talent – by seeking to plug, or at least slow down, what has been referred to as New Jersey’s post-secondary academic ‘brain drain’.[8] At the very least, we should be encouraging high school guidance counselors, both in New Jersey and in other targeted states, to inform their students about our state’s pre-eminent ranking. 

This annual outflow of high quality in-state students whom we have ‘invested’ so heavily in (on average 36,000 or 1/3 of all high school graduates every year, by far the worst in the US), should be a concern for all New Jerseyans. The disturbing exodus of local students, when coupled with the comparatively small number of out-of-state students who come to New Jersey (approximately 5,000 per year), mandates that we do something to try to both retain this local talent and encourage other quality students from outside the state to attend New Jersey’s exceptional public and independent colleges and universities – which include some of the top-rated schools in the country.

Borrowing from another time-honored New Jersey slogan, when it comes to our top students it is fair to summarize our critical ‘out-migration’ challenge as follows: Trenton Makes and the World Takes![9] However, by engaging in both regional and national campaigns that would actively promote our pre-eminence in education, we make this a ‘fairer fight’ to keep more of our students home and attract others to matriculate here.

In the recently proposed state budget, approximately $25M in federal relief funds have been allocated for marketing tourism to attract even more out-of-state visitors to come to our state than we already do.[10] A similar investment focusing on attracting and retaining students would be money far better spent, especially at a time when so many institutions of higher education are struggling in this COVID impacted environment. Students and parents in New Jersey, and across the country, are assessing the ‘value proposition’ of college and evaluating whether, where and when to go to school, as well as the net cost of obtaining a degree and its long-term value. As a result, the level of competition among states and between schools has led to critical enrollment challenges for some, including several in New Jersey. Having the ability to differentiate the quality and long-term value of our educational system over other states, as we now have, is a uniquely valuable asset in this highly competitive environment. We need to put that asset to work – and we need to do it now.

Look at it this way: not aggressively promoting our status as the national education leader to parents and students whom we are trying to attract and retain would be comparable to the University of Alabama coaches not telling their football recruits about its top ranking in the college football polls or their past national championships. Makes no sense, right?

Question 3: Wouldn’t this be difficult to accomplish?

Answer: Not at all. It would be neither complicated nor costly.

Legislation similar to the action taken in 1954 to add “Garden State’ to the bottom of our license plate is really all that would be necessary. This would provide an option for those who might choose to cite our enviable educational system while driving – perhaps teachers, school administrators and anyone who is just proud of how smart our kids are.[11] Making it an official nickname, as Governor Christie did with the ‘Garden State’ in August of 2017, may require another law to be signed by Governor Murphy. But just think of the potential and immediate political benefit of passing such a law, if based only on the likely strong support from our deservedly proud 125,000 New Jersey teachers who helped develop these exceptional students.

Incredibly, there is even a very direct precedent for this – not just where a state has added a new nickname, but one that actually changed its “Garden State” nickname to the “Education State.” In 2016, the state of Victoria, Australia, after having “The Garden State” as the nickname on its license plates for years, changed it to “The Education State.” However, unlike New Jersey, the politicians in Victoria who caused this change could not and candidly acknowledged that they did not claim to have the best education in their country when they made this change.[12]  Instead, the change was ‘aspirational.’ In other words, Victorian state officials hoped that adding this nickname to the consciousness of its citizens and those across their country would facilitate reaching the coveted goal of having the top educational system in Australia. Conversely, the addition of the ‘Education State’ nickname for New Jersey would not be an aspirational reference. We have already earned that distinction.

Question 4: How This Would Add Value for New Jersey?

Answer: In so many practical (and fun) ways.

Imagine yourself driving up to a three lane stop light, say in California – or, better yet, watching this exchange in a new television ad commissioned by the State of New Jersey. You are in the right lane in your car, which proudly displays New Jersey’s new ‘Education State’ license plate on the front and back. In the far-left lane, a car with New Jersey ‘Garden State’ plates pulls up and then a third car, with California plates (which, by the way, has no official nickname on its plates) pulls into the middle lane. The Californian sees the two Jersey cars and asks the driver to her left “Garden State? Why are you the Garden State?” That driver responds in the only way he can, stating “I don’t know for sure. I guess because we have nice gardens?” To which the California driver responds “What, so you think yours are nicer than ours? Who are you kidding?!” The frustrated Jersey driver takes off, unable to counter with an effective response.

The California driver then turns to you and asks “Wait, don’t tell me. You also have no idea why your plate reads the ‘Education State,’ right?” You then show your ‘Jersey Pride’ and state “Oh yes, I do. My state has been ranked the number one state in the US for education. Oh, and California is ranked twentieth,” whereupon the nosey California driver speeds away frustrated, unable to produce a rebuttal. Wouldn’t that be fun?

The point is that New Jerseyans have the well-earned right to be proud of our state, for so many reasons – yes, including our beautiful and plentiful gardens. But I submit that in 2022 we should be most proud of something we now have that every other state covets – which is recognition as the best state in the country to get an education.

This remarkable achievement is currently almost hidden from view.[13] Taking the steps proposed here would quickly change that and allow us to more effectively market New Jersey’s incredible intellectual strength and educational opportunities to students, parents, and guidance counselors – in state, out of state, and internationally.

In addition, such a campaign would be invaluable in attracting companies that are considering where they should locate and grow, as they seek to efficiently tap into the best available local and diverse talent for their workforces – simply by adding a nickname on some license plates and more actively marketing the significance of what it conveys. This would result in the ultimate ‘payback’ or ‘return on investment’ – through enhanced job and career opportunities for the very students whose academic performance enabled our state to earn its number 1 ranking.

I rest my case.


[1] The Independent Colleges and Universities of New Jersey (“ICUNJ”) is comprised of the following institutions: Bloomfield College, Caldwell University, Centenary University, Drew University, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Felician University, Georgian Court, Monmouth University, Princeton University, Rider University, Saint Elizabeth University, Saint Peter’s University, Seton Hall University, and Stevens Institute of Technology

[2]  ‘NJ is ‘The Education State’ – with plentiful gardens.’ ROI-NJ, August 25, 2021; Steve Reynolds, ICUNJ: https://www.roi-nj.com/2021/08/25/opinion/op-ed/n-j-is-the-education-state-with-plentiful-gardens/

[3]  May 2021 US News and World Report Education Ranking: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/rankings/education. While the study equally weighted results in pre-K-12 and higher education, the strength of our state’s pre-K-12 was rated higher than in higher education, in spite of our top 5 scores in both college graduation rates and ‘educational attainment’ – – which essentially assesses how prepared our graduates are for life after graduation. 

[4]A Comprehensive Listing of State Nicknames’. ThoughtCo, January 17, 2020; Matt Rosenberg, http://www.thoughtco.com/state-nicknames-guide-1435566

[5] ‘Origin of The Nickname’. NJ.gov: https://www.state.nj.us/nj/about/facts/nickname/

[6] In a recent survey (conducted by one of our fine universities, Fairleigh Dickinson University), 77 percent of those polled indicated that they “believe The Garden State is a good nickname” and only 13 percent said they thought it should be changed, with the remaining 10 percent unsure. No history concerning the origin of the nickname was provided, nor were any potential alternative names offered to those participating. It is also worth noting that that this survey was commissioned by the Farm Bureau. http://www.insidernj.com/fdu-poll-new-jersey-residents-like-garden-state/

[7] ‘Murphy Announces $400M in Capital Facilities Funding to Support Higher Education’. ROI-NJ, Linda Lindner, November 16, 2021: http://www.roi-nj.com/2021/11/16/education/murphy-announces-400m-in-capital-facilities

[8] ‘NJ Student ‘Brain Drain’. Press Release, 10th District Legislators; December 16,2021. :http://://www.insidernj.com/press-release/democrats-blame-njs-brain-drain/

[9] Emblazoned across the Lower Trenton Bridge are the iconic words ‘Trenton Makes . . . The World Takes’. While the origin of this signage dates back to 1935 (originally, it read ‘The World Takes, Trenton Makes’) and was related to the industrial prowess of our capitol city (https.//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lower_Trenton_Bridge), today it accurately describes the state’s current out-migration challenge. We produce the finest students in the nation, only to lose a disproportionate of them as they head off to college elsewhere, with many not returning to the state as full-time, tax-paying, residents.

[10] ‘Travel, Tourism Would get $25M Boost Under Bill Sent to Murphy’. NJBIZ, Daniel J. Munoz, December 20. 2021: http://njbiz.com/travel-tourism-would-get-25m-boost-under-bill-sent-to-murphy/

[11] After all, we have plates that celebrate the Jersey Shore (‘Shore to Please’), the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and even the New York Giants and Jets!

[12] ‘Victorian Numberplate Logo to Change to ‘The Education State’, If Labor Win’. The Guardian/Australia, Melissa Davey, November 4, 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/Australia-news/2014/nov/05/Victorian-numberplate-logo-to-change-to-the-education—state-if-labor-win

[13] The results of a November 2021 survey, this one also conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University and commissioned by our ICUNJ organization, revealed that “New Jerseyans do not recognize the overall strength of New Jersey’s educational system.” In fact, only 4 percent of those polled indicated that they believed that our state was ranked number 1 in Education in the US News & World Report rankings. Conversely, a far greater number (13 percent) thought that we ranked in the bottom half. 2021 Independent Colleges & Universities NJ Survey. Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll, November 2021.

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