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$750 Million Boost to State’s Colleges, Universities on Ballot

Funds would finance higher-ed facility upgrades to try to get NJ students to stay home.

Despite the big price tag, the higher-education bond on next week’s ballot has widespread support among politicians from both parties, as well as from the public.

The first of two public questions asks whether voters support the Building Our Future Bond Act, which authorizes the state to issue $750 million in general obligation bonds to fund new building projects and renovations at New Jersey colleges and universities.

A group of nine Republicans and Democrats sponsored the bill, and it enjoyed widespread bipartisan support in the Legislature, with only one member of each house – Republican Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, and Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris – voting against it. Gov. Chris Christie signed it, putting the bill on the general election ballot, a requirement since the bonds are insured by state tax revenue.

Legislators, college officials and other advocates say investing in new facilities and technological upgrades will bolster the competitiveness of New Jersey higher education, which in turn will be a boon to the state’s economy.

According to demographic projections cited in the bill, New Jersey will experience a high rate of growth among college-age students within the next five years.

“This means New Jersey’s higher education institutions will be one of the largest engines for economic development and a key stakeholder in our economic stability,” said Assemblywoman Celeste M. Riley in a newsletter to constituents. “Inadequate facilities will leave the state ill prepared to accommodate and compete.”

Proponents suggest that spending the money now to improve the infrastructure and reputation of New Jersey colleges and universities will attract prospective students in the future. But it’s an uphill battle, since large numbers of New Jerseyans leave the state every year to attend college.

According to the Report of the Governor’s Task Force on Higher Education from December 2010, New Jersey has some of the highest outward migration rates in the country. Each year, roughly 30,000 first-year students leave New Jersey for college, while only 4,000 students from other states enroll here.

Paul Shelly, director of communications and marketing for the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, says now is the time to invest in higher education. He said the state has made “this huge investment in our K-12 systems,” but not its higher- education institutions.

Another reason proponents give for approving the measure is that the last voter-approved bond act for higher education in New Jersey was passed back in 1988. The state is one of only five in the nation that has spent no money on capital improvements for higher education in the last five years.

Despite bipartisan support in Trenton, the bond proposal still has its detractors.

Chris Rogers, president of the New Jersey Taxpayers’ Association, says the state cannot afford to make any more investments with taxpayer dollars. “”We’ve borrowed well beyond what a reasonable person thinks we can pay back,” said Rogers. “There are many wonderful projects we can do with bond referendums, but it doesn’t mean we should do them.”

He said he favors publicly-funded higher education in New Jersey, but the NJTA opposes any future borrowing.

Morristown Tea Party Organization President Jeffrey Weingarten agrees that New Jersey should be more frugal. He lauds Governor Christie’s efforts to rein in state spending, and says this bond issue should not be immune to those efforts. He also said that the current state of New Jersey’s finances makes this a bad time for the bond act.

“If you need something beyond (state funding), have a drive, let this be voluntary,” Weingarten said. “But I don’t think it’s fair to take from those people who are undergoing real hardships presently.”

Others have criticized the fact that the bond act would provide state funding to private institutions.

“But it does make sense given the enrollment patterns of New Jersey,” Shelly said.

He estimates that upwards of 90 percent of students at all colleges and universities in the state, both public and private, are New Jersey residents.

“It’s not like we have a lot of people coming from Ohio to go to Rider,” Shelly noted.

But opposition has not dampened public support for the bond act.

In a September poll conducted by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, the bond act had support from 62 percent of voters, up from 56 percent a month earlier. Two weeks ago, public support for the bond act was up to 72 percent, according to a Stockton Polling Institute Poll.

If the bond is approved by voters, each of the four sectors of higher education would receive different amounts of funding. Public research universities would get $300 million, state colleges and universities would receive about $248 million, county colleges would get $150 million and private institutions with an endowment of $1 billion or less would receive some $53 million.

Princeton University would be the only college in the state ineligible to receive bond funds because its endowment of roughly $17 billion far exceeds the limit for eligible private institutions.

The funds would have to go toward new buildings and renovations that increase “academic capacity,” including any facility whose sole function is academic, such as classroom buildings, laboratories and libraries. Revenue-generating facilities, dormitories, sports facilities and administration buildings would not be eligible for funding.

After the bond act is passed, the state’s higher-education secretary would lay out procedures for the submission of project proposals. Eligible colleges and universities would then vie for shares of their sector’s allotted funding.

The highest-priority projects will be those that are shovel-ready. Projects that “advance the institution’s long-range goals” and “directly benefit the students” will also be given preference, said Shelly.

Because the bond act is awaiting a vote, no colleges or universities have submitted any project proposals. But a November 2011 report by the New Jersey Presidents’ Council, an advisory board made up of the presidents of colleges that receive state aid, outlined the highest capital needs of colleges and universities at that time and could provide a window into the types of projects to come.

According to the report, Rutgers University’s top priority was reconstruction and addition of a chemistry and chemical biology building on the Busch Campus in Piscataway. Stevens Institute of Technology gave priority to funding for a Center for Engineering and Science Innovation in Hoboken. And two of Montclair State University’s top priorities were a new School of Business and a Communication and Media Studies building.

Colleges would have to partially match state funds for every project approved under the act, with the state committing 75 percent of the total and the institution providing the rest.

Joe Hernandez is a freelance writer and radio producer based in Jersey City.

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