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Opinion: The Disastrous Dismantling of Public Higher Education

Ample evidence of how New Jersey’s politicians have agreed to forgo the proven benefits of investing in public colleges.

When Gov. Chris Christie signed the 2011 budget, it came with a promise that when the economy recovered, public higher education would be first in line for increased state support.

“We have starved our higher education institutions over the last decade,” he said, “even in good times.”

Actually, the Governor understated the problem: The starvation of public colleges began in the early 1990s, accelerated during the Whitman administration, and continued through the McGreevey-Corzine years. Hopefully, Christie will end the terrible, no-good run of gubernatorial indifference to the essential role that higher education should play in New Jersey’s future.

Up to the mid-1960s, New Jersey sent so many students to out-of-state colleges that it was known in education circles as “the cuckoo state,” for the bird that lays its eggs in nests built by other birds. In fact, in 1960 there were no community colleges, no medical school, no Ramapo, Stockton, or Edison state colleges, and only outposts of Rutgers in Newark and Camden.

All that changed in the governorship of Richard Hughes, who created the Department of Higher Education and engineered voter approval of a large bond issue to begin implementation of an ambitious master plan of expanded public colleges and universities.

And now, the Great Recession has sparked a surge in anxious New Jerseyans seeking a quality degree at a reasonable cost. Applications to state colleges and universities are up significantly, just as their capacity to manage the load is jeopardized by continued reductions in state support. Adjuncts are being cashiered and professors denied salary increases; courses have been canceled and classrooms are over-crowded.

What counts on the ground is not the rhetoric of political leaders (although it is refreshing to have a Governor put higher education first for a change), but what they’re willing to spend money on -- in good times and bad. Here are three bits of evidence that the politicians of this state have agreed to forgo the proven benefits of investing in higher education.

First, for two decades, successive governors and legislatures have steadily shifted the cost of college from taxpayers to students and parents, more so than any state except Vermont. An in-state student pays $22,562 to go to Rutgers vs. the $14,296 a Charlotte resident pays to go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill or the $15,831 a Racine resident pays for the University of Wisconsin at Madison. All three are distinguished research universities with national ambitions for their athletic teams. The College of New Jersey runs $22,718 for tuition, fees, room and board for an in-state student compared to just $15,831 for a New Yorker attending SUNY at Purchase.

You get the point. Over the years required to graduate, these differences will be quite noticeable to whoever is paying the bill.

Second, the State of New Jersey is AWOL when it comes to maintaining and expanding the facilities and equipment at public colleges. No governor or legislature has sponsored a higher education bond issue since Tom Kean did so in 1988. But between 1968 and 1988, New Jersey voters approved four bond issues for public colleges totaling $932.5 million, an investment of over $3.7 billion in current dollars. Since then? Nothing! (In the same time, voters approved five Green Acres bond issues worth $1.525 billion.)

Third, with the enthusiastic support of public college and university presidents, Gov. Whitman erased the Department of Higher Education in 1994 on the pretext that its job was “needlessly duplicative” and that the state could save $5 million or so in a $26 billion budget. She argued that the trustees and presidents of each public institution were smart enough to supply all the oversight assigned to the department.

What they proved they could not provide, however, was a persistent inside-Trenton advocate for the cause of higher education, the means to avoid expensive duplicative programs, and any serious analysis of emerging issues and problems to frame the public debate, e.g., comparing New Jersey’s investment in research universities to rivals like North Carolina, Virginia or Massachusetts. Instead, public institutions have squabbled among themselves while seeking separate deals with governors and legislatures.

As predicted during the debate over eliminating the department, higher education has disappeared as a statewide issue of public discourse. The result: everyone loses.

In the 15 years since Gov. Whitman’s first budget, the state has steadily dismantled its investment in higher education, reducing its basic support from 59% of the operating budgets of four-year public institutions to 40% in Gov. Christie’s first budget. When measured against the inflation index for education, the state has slashed support for its four-year, professional, and research universities by 48.8%! No other public activity has suffered as much.

Economists have agreed that few investments pay off as well as education; a college graduate earns about 60% more than the average high school grad and is less likely to be unemployed. High-income states have well-educated residents; low-income states do not.

Clearly, New Jersey is headed in the wrong direction.

[Note: The preceding views are mine alone and are not those of my colleagues on the Rutgers Board of Governors or the administration of the University.]

Gordon MacInnes is a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York and previously was a lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. He served as the assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education and was a member of the New Jersey State Senate and General Assembly. MacInnes also directed the New Jersey Network and was the first director of the Fund for New Jersey. He lives in Morristown.

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