Students speak out against budget cuts

At budget committee hearings of the State Senate and Assembly on March 24 and 26, several students and presidents of state colleges and universities voiced deep concerns about the challenges facing middle-income students at a time when Gov. Jon S. Corzine is proposing another cut for higher education, the seventh cut in less than a decade. For state colleges and universities, this time around, the cut is $13.8 million, or 5 percent of direct state aid.

Many spoke about how tuition costs are forcing too many students to work longer hours and, in so doing, take longer to graduate. Others spoke about New Jersey’s historic unwillingness to invest more in providing college enrollment slots, despite huge growth in demand for state colleges and the need to turn away thousands of prospective students.

On top of that, New Jersey, whose investment in grades K-12 far exceeds most other states, suffers an astonishing loss of college-bound students each year: 35,000 leave the state to attend college elsewhere.

Some at the hearing mentioned that New Jersey has not had a voter-approved bond issue for higher education facilities in more than 20 years – a fact that has led to much higher student fees and much higher institutional debt to build and maintain quality facilities and technology. Literally, college facilities have been built by students and families, not the state.

New Jersey’s retreat from investment in state colleges and universities is unparalleled nationally and will have dire results. We are denying growing numbers of New Jersey’s citizens a fundamental asset for success in today’s world: a four-year college degree. Extending college opportunities to more citizens is widely recognized as the key investment needed to keep local talent, grow jobs, improve the business climate and assure long-term prosperity.

While many states, such as Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina are investing more in higher education – even in this uncertain economy – New Jersey is investing less in its colleges. Several states have dedicated a substantial share of their federal stimulus funds toward public higher education, but New Jersey has not.

This should alarm people concerned about the state’s chances for long-term economic growth. Higher education spending is viewed by many, including President Barack Obama and former Gov. Tom Kean, as a crucial economic investment for individual and national prosperity.

We are thankful that the state budget increases student aid. The reality is that four out of five state college students do not receive State Tuition Aid Grants, which are aimed principally at low-income students.

One program that would receive increased support, NJSTARS II, is problematic for senior public colleges and universities. Because of a state mandatory match requirement for county college transfer students in STARS II, it saps limited institutional resources.

In effect, students not benefiting from this program subsidize the program. To sum up, state officials should not oversell student aid as an easy solution to middle-class college affordability.

The good news is that despite slim state funding, the state colleges now serve 20,000 more students than a decade ago. This has been the result of cost cutting, greater productivity and careful stewardship of resources.

We realize that the state is in a financial bind this year and may not be able to do much more to help. There are some things the state can do this year to safeguard college opportunity and affordability. It can preserve and enhance student financial aid funding, but don’t oversell it as a solution to college affordability for everyone.

If possible, the state should restore funding for college operating budgets toward previous levels, the principal way of keeping in check those forces driving up tuition.

The state should also recognize the need to provide more college opportunity to keep more New Jersey students in the state and keep fees down through legislation authorizing a $1.3 billion bond issue for facilities improvement and expansion at the state colleges and universities.

Citizens who support these goals can send a message to their elected officials in Trenton though a special advocacy Web site created by our organization: njcollegepromise.com. Meanwhile, our association will be working with the governor, legislators and other leaders to underscore why investment in state colleges must be strengthened for the good of New Jersey’s future.

Darryl G. Greer is the CEO of New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities