Gov. Chris Christie has long said higher education would be one of his priorities once the state's fiscal crisis eased. This week he was as good as his word, announcing a 6 percent increase in direct aid to colleges and universities in his fiscal 2013 budget.
But missing from the speech -- and his budget -- was his long-discussed intention to provide the schools with major facilities help, likely in the form of a capital bond. The state has not seen a major bond for higher education since 1988.
Yesterday, the governor said the idea was still alive and under discussion with state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex). But he made no promises, and could only express some hope it would be accomplished this year.
"We are still working on it," Christie said in a press conference following a Palisades Park appearance. "We want to make sure we are doing it the right way."
"We don't want to just write a blank check to the universities that they can spend as they will," he said. "Targeted smart investment in our universities is something I am willing to consider, and so is the Senate president and speaker."
As for this year, Christie only said: "I hope so, I really hope. But the clock keeps ticking."
It was faint encouragement in a mostly positive budget plan for the state's public colleges and universities, the first they can claim under Christie after severe cuts two years ago and level funding last year. And even the level funding was illusory, since indirect aid was cut for employee benefits, forcing schools to make it up elsewhere
Overall, the state's direct aid to schools would be $1.4 billion, which is $80 million more than this year's, according to administration documents.
Rutgers University and the University of Medicine and Dentistry get roughly half of the total aid, even as Christie discusses a major restructuring of the research universities. The biggest increase of all the schools would go to Rowan University, another major piece in the restructuring plan. It would receive a 10 percent boost. UMDNJ would see the smallest increase, at 4 percent.
Following the release of the budget, college leaders continued to look over the details, but were cautiously optimistic.
"We appreciate the proposed increases in support for state colleges and universities -- and that the level of support provided appears to include both operations and fringe benefits funding," said Michael Klein, executive director of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities.
In a statement, Klein said the increases for financial aid were especially welcome. Financial assistance would go up 8 percent under Christie's budget, with Tuition Aid Grants, which comprise the bulk of the total, going up more than 10 percent.
"Funding of state aid programs for students with the greatest financial need is significantly increased,” Klein said. "This will keep New Jersey among the top states in providing grants to students with limited means."