Senators Question Higher Education Spending in State Budget

By Michael Hill

These college presidents hold doctorates but admit they’re struggling to see the logic of the Christie administration proposing to cut spending by a million dollars to their senior public institutions like Rowan, Rutgers and NJIT.

“We’ve been under-funding higher education through state means for decades now, that in fact are students are  making it up that difference in tuition.,” said NJIT President Joel Bloom.

The New Jersey Presidents’ Council says the state lacks a funding formula and rationale for how it gives to higher learning.

Overall, the Christie administration recommends increasing the 2017 higher educational services budget by $25 million, but some senators on the Budget and Appropriations Committee scrutinized the fine print seeking to understand the administration’s rationale if it wants to raise graduation rates for minorities.

“What I’m calling the Master Plan is accelerating equity and excellence in higher education. So that tells you a little bit about where I am on this issue,” said Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks.

Sen. Sandra Cunningham noted the administration proposes to cut by 6.2 percent the budget for the Educational Opportunity Fund — grants to educationally and economically disadvantaged  students, a population that is not decreasing.

“How do we continue to give these students what they need,” said Cunningham said.

“We always advocate for funding for EOF. But, again it’s the challenges across the state with in terms of the budget in competing priorities that I may not be aware of. I can say that we’ve been very appreciative for the last two years of the legislature decided to increase that appropriation,” Hendricks said.

One senator wondered about some of the disparity in graduation rates and some of the funding for higher education.

“When you look at some of the graduation rates for the African American community, it’s fifteen percent to twenty percent lower than the whites. That’s unacceptable.  And if these higher institutions are systematically wasting money or not allowing all the kids to have the same level of achievement we gotta find out why,” said Sen. Kevin O’Toole.

Committee Chair Senator Paul Sarlo challenged the administration on the Tuition Aid Grant or TAG program. In some cases, full-tuition awards for the neediest students. Bigger grants when they attend private or religious colleges with higher tuitions than public schools:

“Is that fair?” Sarlo asked.

“And we have a long tradition in NJ since 1978 of not saying to young people from moderate and low income households that if you aspire to go to Seton Hall, ‘sorry that’s not in your realm of possibility’,” said New Jersey Higher Education Students Assistance Authority Executive Director Gabrielle Charette.

The tug of war over the higher education budget will go on for at least a couple more months.