The Garden State Student Alliance (GSSA), an association of student trustees from New Jersey public colleges and universities, created a petition to be sent to the State House regarding the restoration of funding for higher education.
The petition – which has received 640 signatures from students at the College and over 500 signatures from students at Ramapo College and at Rowan University – is intended to call the attention of state governing bodies to both the effects of the sustained cuts made to the 2006 state fiscal budget and students’ rights to an affordable education, according to Jenna Klubnick, student trustee at the College.
According to Alexander Habib, student trustee from Rowan University and GSSA president, the petition is intended to achieve “more directed attention toward student needs in higher education.”
“This petition puts the students’ voice on paper,” Habib said. “We’re saying we have a right to an accessible and an affordable education . and nothing should get in the way of that,” he added.
Klubnick said the success of the petition is contingent on the activism and political interest of students across the state.
“(Student apathy) is the biggest problem we face because (New Jersey government officials) like to appease the senior citizens because they come out in droves whenever there’s an election. But unfortunately, (students) have the lowest amount registered and we have the lowest turnout too,” she said.
Klubnick speculated that students aren’t aware of the severity of the problem posed by budget cuts. “I think for the most part, students don’t understand the really serious situation that the state and the College are in,” she said. “I wish I could force students to care. Unfortunately, I can’t. I think that as students of the state, we all have a common interest.”
To combat low student-voter turnout, the Legal & Governmental Affairs Committee of the Student Government Association (SGA) has been conducting an ongoing voter registration and absentee ballot application drive.
One of the primary concerns addressed in the petition is the affordability of higher education within the state. The 2006 budget cuts eliminated funding for merit-based financial aid programs, including the Outstanding Scholar Recruitment Program (OSRP), forcing colleges and universities to honor scholarship commitments prior to 2006 out of pocket.
Habib said this has caused many students to incur massive debts from student loans in order to pay for their educations. He also said the lack of merit-based scholarships is driving New Jersey students out of state for their higher education.
“The issue of cost is getting so much worse, year by year, that students are actually getting forced to turn away an application,” Habib said.
State Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney, D-District 3, said the cost of higher education was a concern among Senate Democrats. “I recognize the cost of higher education and how it’s continuing to grow,” Sweeney said, noting that he has a college-bound son himself. “We need to provide more seats for our kids that live in New Jersey . That troubles me more than anything. It’s harder and harder for kids to get into our state universities,” he added.
Sweeney said he did not think budget cuts have impacted the quality of higher education because institutions have increased their cost of attendance. “It’s becoming an affordability issue,” he said.
According to Dan Scapardine, SGA vice president of Legal & Governmental Affairs, SGA members from the College are at the forefront of lobbying efforts with the state. “We probably have the most experience, lobbying-wise, than the other schools,” Scapardine said.
Mike Peters, senator of Culture and Society, is serving as the co-chairman of lobbying efforts. “There is an interest among representatives in Trenton to meet with students to discuss higher education,” Peters said.
Throughout his lobbying efforts, Peters said he has demonstrated the problems posed by budget cuts.
“New Jersey has the highest out-migration of students,” Peters said. “More than half of the students that graduate high school go out of state.”
“A lot of students I’ve talked to were shocked to know how many students left the state,” Peters said.
In addition to its lobbying efforts, Scapardine said his committee is working on an electronic letter generator that will allow students to directly e-mail their senators or assemblymen.