Budget Puts College Opportunity On The Line

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by Darryl G. Greer, CEO
New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities

In a national context, New Jersey has funded public higher education poorly for many years.  And given the state’s fiscal crisis, college and university leaders anticipated a budget cut requiring higher education to share the pain of helping the state balance its severely out of control budget.

But it surprised college leaders to learn that the 2010-2011 budget proposal contains another hefty round of cuts to the nine state colleges and universities:  $50 million, or 15% of direct operating aid.  Higher education, overall, would lose $173 million.  This will be the seventh round of cuts to state colleges in the past ten years, on top of a $62 million reduction ($17 million for the nine state colleges and universities) in February.  This is especially troublesome given that New Jersey ranks 47th nationally in funding per student since 2005.

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Equally surprising is the magnitude of the proposed cuts at a time when more New Jerseyans than ever seek college opportunity, and during a severe economic downturn when colleges can help with job creation and long-term economic development.

So far, the state colleges have preserved access and quality through years of cuts by tightening belts and becoming more innovative, in addition to increasing tuition to make up for some lost state support.  The nine, together, are currently the third most productive set of institutions of their kind in the nation.  They are raising private funds so they can offer more financial aid to students; they are building solar carports and cogeneration plants that serve as a source of cheaper energy; they are purchasing many goods jointly; they are creating new partnerships with the private sector to find new capital for buildings and community development; they are offering programs that serve business and bring in revenue beyond charges to students; and they eliminating unproductive programs.

To the outsider, state colleges might appear to be doing better than surviving.  But the opportunity loss is frightening.  Thousands of students are turned away, often simply because of limited space.  Maintenance and replacement of facilities is being put off “just one more year.”  The state has not passed a voter-approved facilities bond since 1988.  Academic departments and administrative units are understaffed.  Library materials are more limited.  The list goes on.  It is reasonable to assume that the colleges can weather yet another storm of cuts, but unreasonable to think that New Jersey, which already leads the nation in losing talented, college-bound students, can keep more talent here to create and fill jobs, pay taxes and help the state compete economically.

A specter of things to come perhaps – contraction of institutions – is exemplified with the proposal to merge Thomas Edison State College with Rutgers.  Severely under-built for its population size in four-year public college institutions and current enrollment demand, New Jersey cannot afford to consider eliminating a unique senior public college for adults, educating 18,000 students per year here, and globally, including 7,000 serving in the military.

With a more prudent investment from the state, instead of retrenchment, there could be a blossoming of programs and enrollment, especially in those high-demand fields, such as nursing, engineering and education, directly related to employment in New Jersey.  Furthermore, there would be less pressure to raise tuition, thereby helping with college affordability.

To improve the budget proposal, for starters, we need to make public higher education a higher priority in this spring’s budget debate.  New Jersey needs to have the strength of conviction to invest in what it values regarding the promise of college opportunity, especially for middle-class and low-income New Jerseyans.  We also need to enact reforms recommended by the governor, and supported by the entire higher education community, to free colleges from strangling Trenton red-tape, so that they can be more productive and accountable.  We need to restore some of the proposed cuts to protect and enhance future college access and affordability.

Finally, we need to work immediately on a long-range plan for new shared responsibilities for paying for public colleges, with clear expectations about outcomes – a goal long researched and advocated by NJASCU.
What’s at stake is not just balancing the budget, but the ability of New Jerseyans to have the tools and opportunity, through higher education, to live and prosper in the Garden State.

New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization whose member institutions are The College of New Jersey, Kean University, Montclair State University, New Jersey City University, Ramapo College of New Jersey, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Rowan University, Thomas Edison State College, and William Paterson University.


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