It's (Not Just) the Economy, Stupid: Advocates Say Higher Education Reform in New Jersey Should Include the State Providing Schools More Support and Financial Autonomy

By Russell, Malik | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, December 9, 2010 | Go to article overview

It's (Not Just) the Economy, Stupid: Advocates Say Higher Education Reform in New Jersey Should Include the State Providing Schools More Support and Financial Autonomy


Russell, Malik, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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Just as the recession has taken a toll in other states, New Jersey state budget coffers are shriveling up as public colleges and other state-supported services are asked to do more with less.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's slashing of $173 million from public colleges and universities has drawn the ire of higher education leaders, educators and students and has forced the public schools to impose a 4 percent increase in tuition and adopt additional cost-cutting measures.

For some, the bad economy represents only a small aspect of the problems facing public colleges across the nation. While the recession has exposed chronic problems in financing public colleges, many argue that it will take more than an improved economy to solve these issues. The realization has some schools and states thinking more strategically about long-term reforms. New Jersey this month will unveil some recommendations designed to address issues impeding its higher education institutions.

"States have been disinvesting--not all states, but the state of New Jersey clearly--and many other states have been disinvesting in higher education for years," says Dr. Darryl Greer, president of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges & Universities (NJASCU), a nonprofit advocacy group based in Trenton.

With the exception of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, NJASCU represents nine of New Jersey's public colleges and serves nearly half of all the students attending the state colleges. The schools have seen their share of state dollars continually decrease while the state has maintained control over key regulatory measures.

"New Jersey has been headed in the wrong direction since the early 1990s," says Greer. "New Jersey is literally financially bankrupt, and I am not using that terra lightly."

Greer argues that continuing to shift the burden for paying for state colleges from the state to the colleges and students while allowing the state to control key aspects of financial regulatory issues makes the state a "bad partner" and straps the colleges with state-negotiated unfunded mandates.

According to a May 10 editorial by the Newark Star-Ledger, the state so underfunded its colleges and universities in the past 20 years that the percentage of higher education costs covered by the state dropped from 48 percent to 16 percent. The number could drop as low as 13.7 percent because of this year's budget cuts. NJASCU's data project that students' share of educational costs has climbed 30 percent since 1990.

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Much of this shift, argues Greer, stems from archaic regulatory controls that prevent public colleges from efficiently negotiating building contracts or negotiating directly with labor unions, combined with the lack of state funding for capital projects. (Rutgers, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and the New Jersey Institute of Technology are the only public institutions allowed to negotiate their own agreements with staff.)

An added dimension to the issue of funding for public colleges and universities, says Greer, is the seismic shift from private to public colleges as the leading educator of American students.

"Eighty percent of people who went to college as recently as 1950 were attending private colleges," he says. Today, 80 percent of students attend public colleges. Greer questions whether these public institutions can serve as the same engine of opportunity for low-income students and students of color, who disproportionately use them, given the influx of students who would have previously attended private school.

Shifted Strategy

New Jersey schools aren't the only public colleges affected by the recession or thinking along the lines of advocating for newer financial models and greater autonomy.

"It is across the board," says Richard Novak, senior vice president of programs and research at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities & Colleges (AGB). …

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