College presidents urge lawmakers to expand higher education aid

By: - April 26, 2022 6:47 am

New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Brian Bridges testifies before the Assembly Budget Committee April 25, 2022, on Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed spending for colleges and universities. (Courtesy of New Jersey Assembly)

New Jersey’s public colleges and universities need more state funding to counter long-standing deficiencies in how the state funds higher education and to offset challenges the pandemic created, several university presidents told lawmakers Monday.

The presidents, who appeared before the Assembly’s budget committee, said despite Gov. Phil Murphy’s plans to boost state aid for higher education by $100 million, the governor’s budget proposal leaves colleges’ operating funds with $42.2 million less than last year’s budget.

If approved, Murphy’s budget plan could force officials at the schools most impacted to hike tuition, one university president warned.

“We will have no alternative but to raise our tuition far more than the 2% or less we have held to over the last several years,” Stockton University President Harvey Kesselman said.

Kesselman testified on behalf of the New Jersey Association of Colleges and State Universities, which represents seven four-year state schools that serve more than 60,000 students combined.

More than half of the $42.2 million cut would fall on schools — including Montclair State, Stockton, Kean, and Ramapo — that already receive the least funding per student, Kesselman added.

“That is inequitable,” Kesselman said.

State officials have set a goal of ensuring 65% of New Jersey’s working-age adult population has a degree or professional credential by 2025. And much of the increase in higher education aid Murphy has proposed aims to meet that goal by expanding college access for marginalized groups, including $24 million for the new Garden State Guarantee, which covers or reduces tuition and fees for low-income students at 13 state colleges, and $3 million for a program that helps people who started but quit college get their degrees.

But the general operating funds reduction could make that goal unattainable, some of Monday’s speakers warned, especially in a state that trails most others in higher education affordability. High college costs also contribute to a third of New Jersey’s high school graduates heading to other states for college, they added.

They urged lawmakers to overhaul how higher education is funded in New Jersey. Aid historically has been allocated based on what an institution received the previous year and has disregarded enrollment growth or special needs, such as the reduced teacher-to-student ratio a teaching hospital requires, the presidents said.

In 2019, state officials took a step toward revamping the funding formula by creating an “outcomes-based allocation” approach, which aims to reward schools that expand enrollments of low-income students and graduate more students from underrepresented minority groups.

Still, many schools have expanded their enrollments at a rate outpacing state support.

Rowan University has more than doubled its enrollment in the past decade and consequently expanded its academic offerings, such as launching a new veterinary school in 2021, Rowan President Ali A. Houshmand said. The 23,000-student South Jersey school received state aid the last two years to get the vet school up and running, but there’s nothing for the vet school in Murphy’s new budget proposal, Houshman said. That oversight leaves it “in question,” Houshmand testified.

Some lawmakers pushed back on the university presidents, saying high tuition costs lay largely in their hands.

“Why is college so expensive?” Assemblyman Gerard Scharfenberger (R-Monmouth) asked, pointing to an “explosion of administration” as one possible driver of costs.

Scharfenberger is a professor at Monmouth University, a private school in West Long Branch where this year’s tuition and fees total nearly $42,000.

High college costs create the “huge problem” of student debt, Scharfenberger said. Recent calls for student loan forgiveness, which Scharfenberger called “the 900-pound gorilla in the room,” present a sticky problem for universities and policymakers alike, he added.

“To me, that’s not the answer — it’s never really forgiven, it’s just who pays for it. It’s removed from the burden of the folks who actually took the loan out and put on the backs of the taxpayers, who had no say in that,” Scharfenberger said. “So we always have to be mindful of that — you don’t forgive student loan debt, you transfer the responsibility. If we say it that way, we would be able to look more at the root causes of student loan debt and get it before it gets out of control.”

State Secretary of Higher Education Brian Bridges said colleges have expanded their administrative staffs and hiked tuition most years in recent decades. But he pointed to the state’s steadily dwindling support as one of those root causes.

“Starting in 1980, the decision was made to pass more of the burden on to students and individuals, and that has been the approach since then,” Bridges said.

Schools used to rely on state funding for more than two-thirds of their budgets, but aid has shrunk so much that it now covers just a fifth or less of most schools’ budgets, Kesselman said.

At the same time, the cost of college has been impacted by expanding enrollments, increasing regulations, rising rates of food and housing insecurity among students, and more, speakers said Monday.

Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Sussex) suggested legislators urge the governor to dedicate some of the $3 billion in unallocated federal COVID relief funds to boost college spending.

“It would be money very well spent on higher education institutions,” Wirths said.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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