Gov. Chris Christie’s critics in higher education -- both at the schools and in the Legislature -- are right to point out that he’s made serious funding cuts to programs, departments, and colleges and universities. In the process, he’s also pushed more of the costs of education onto students and their families.
“He’s cut (total) funding by close to 12 percent during his years in office,” said Alan Kaufman, chairman of the Higher Education Committee for the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), which has waged some of the highest-profile battles against the governor. “What I think we’re losing is the ability of students to attend college without going deeply into debt.”
But what’s lost in this assessment is that Christie has also presided over sweeping changes to New Jersey’s colleges and universities, changes that were not necessarily popular when they were made, but -- in many cases -- are now bearing fruit. A list of these includes:
The reinvention of Rutgers University, under a new master plan. The school now includes two medical schools, the anticipated merger of two law schools, and a new life sciences research center;
The backing of Rutgers President Robert Barchi when calls were being made for his resignation because of embarrassing problems in the sports program;
The appointment of highly regarded chancellors at Rutgers' two satellite campuses;
The entry of Rutgers into the Big 10, which is not only expected to raise the profile of the athletic program but also to help in fundraising;
The creation of a higher-education cabinet position;
The issuance of bonds to fund capital investments at public schools, and finance a new direction for community colleges.
At the same time, Christie governs when controversial issues like tuition, scholarships to undocumented immigrants, and skills-based training are being raised not just in New Jersey but nationally. Further, even critics who are willing to acknowledge the governor’s accomplishments argue that not much more can be done without more money.
As Trenton lawmakers battle over the fiscal 2016 budget, the administration touts that it’s keeping higher-education funding flat. On paper, that’s true. The governor is proposing $2.2 billion for the state’s public colleges and universities, a $19 million increase over last year.
But the budget separates four-year college funding into two columns: operating budgets and employee benefits. Critics point out that while the total allocation remains more or less the same, the budget proposes to move 2.6 percent out of the operating column and into the benefits column -- a move designed to help plug the well-publicized gap in the state’s pension funding and cover increasing costs.
That move, critics contend, makes a big difference.
“General operating support continues to decline, but institutional costs don’t go down,” said Gordon MacInnes, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), a liberal-leaning think tank and frequent critic of Christie. “To make that up, schools have to raise tuition and fees, and that means families bear a higher percentage of costs.”
That may be a particularly difficult burden in a state ranked ninth in the nation for net tuition and fees, according to the most recent data available from the Colorado-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
Still, Kaufman concedes that Christie is “not doing anything that’s not being done elsewhere,” adding that just because “it is part of a national trend … doesn’t make it acceptable.”
Jacob Farbman, director of communications for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges (NJCCC), says that Christie’s budget is doing better by his 19 members. This year, Christie’s budget leaves county college funding relatively untouched.
When he took office, Christie set up a task force to study higher education in New Jersey. Its recommendation didn't win it many friends: dismantle Newark’s debt-laden University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) and incorporate most of its legacy parts into Rutgers and strengthen Rowan University -- affiliated with South Jersey powerbroker and Christie ally George Norcross -- by severing Rutgers’ Camden campus from the State University of New Jersey and merging it into Rowan.
Many months of protests, negotiations, and threats of lawsuits later, the parties reached a Christie-approved compromise called the New Jersey Medical and Health Sciences Education Restructuring Act: UMDNJ would go but its affiliated University Hospital would stay; Rutgers would restructure its administrative governance to give its campuses more equality with New Brunswick; Rutgers would also establish a college of biomedical and health sciences under which it would absorb/create a significant number of major health-science initiatives, including a second medical school in Newark.
In South Jersey, Rutgers-Camden would remain attached to Rutgers but would form a powerful joint board with Rowan, stacked with gubernatorial appointees, and a mission to establish cooperative health-science programs and a building to house them. Rowan would be officially designated a state research university and would take over the prestigious School of Osteopathic Medicine from UMDNJ.
The administration took credit for a victory and proclaimed South Jersey higher education reinvented. The partnership would strengthen the education and medical sector (“eds and meds”) that drive development in downtown Camden, site of the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University (which Norcross chairs) and future home to the joint health sciences center.
In its final form, the act, signed by Christie in 2012,reshuffled the board of governors, and one of Christie’s first picks to the newly expanded board was so controversial that he had to win a court battle to get him seated.
Since then, Christie has largely stayed away from Rutgers politics, neither supporting nor disavowing Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) as he spent the following two years trying -- mostly unsuccessfully -- to abolish the board of trustees and diminish its influence. The governor did, however, sign a bill in February to prohibit board members from simultaneously sitting on the boards of trustees and governors.
Rutgers has benefitted tremendously, along with the state’s other public colleges and universities, from the Building Our Future Bond Act, which Christie championed and the electorate approved by a 63-37 vote in a ballot referendum. Implemented in 2013, the act released $750 million worth of bonds to make capital improvements on campuses across the state. It marked the first such action since 1988.
Rutgers received $387 million from the act and is using it to take on an extensive array of projects, including the construction of a new 10-acre quad for the New Brunswick campus. Rowan officials are using their $117 million to construct new buildings for their colleges of business and engineering. Schools like Thomas Edison State College and William Paterson University are enhancing their nursing facilities, while others, like Stockton University and NJCU are investing in new science and tech buildings. In addition to new construction, schools are using their funds to dramatically upgrade their academic and residential space and modernize their telecommunications and digital systems.
Much as President Barack Obama is highlighting a need for technical job training and making community college as relevant as possible, Christie is doing the same at the state level. He supports the New Jersey Community College Consortium for Workforce and Economic Development. According to its website, the consortium aims to:
Provide one-stop access to all 64 community-college campus facilities throughout the state.
Develop customized curriculum (training programs) specific to company needs.
Provide centralized billing and record keeping.
Deliver training onsite at any company or at any one of our 64 community college campuses.
Complete and file New Jersey customized training grant applications at no cost.
Christie's encouraged his Department of Labor to match federal grants for training programs and work with the council to develop initiatives like mobile labs that will park at county colleges to retrain unemployed workers for manufacturing jobs in their area.
Typically, states burdened by high costs do offer high levels of financial aid, and New Jersey is no exception. The state, which consistently scores in the top five for educational attainment, ranks sixth nationally for its need-based aid packages.
Most notably, the governor has been lauded for preserving funding to the NJ STARS scholarship program, which he considered dropping during his first year in office. NJ STARS serves as the first program in the United States to pay county college tuition for students who graduate in the top 15 percent of their high school class. NJ STAR students who receive an associate’s degree with a 3.25 or better GPA then receive $2,500 per year to attend any four-year school in New Jersey. Christie also pushed up the scholarship notification date to a student’s junior year in high school to give recipients more time to plan for their education. However, next year’s budget proposal calls for a 19 percent decrease to the NJ STARS budget.
It remains unclear what may happen to the program, but Farbman said, “We are confident that there are adequate funds to pay for NJ STARS and NJ STARS II next year.” Conversely, the budget does request a 5.3 percent increase to the appropriation for tuition aid grants (TAG), which are awarded to needy full-time four-year students. But the TAG allocation to part-time county college students will be cut by 10 percent, if the governor’s budget passes as-is.
As the NJPP report notes, TAG was intended to cover the entire cost of public school tuition. But it no longer does.
With rising tuitions, higher fees (which TAG doesn’t cover), and a larger pool of applicants, the program only paid for half of a students’ attendance costs in 2012, even when combined with federal Pell Grants. The report goes on to say that at Rutgers-New Brunswick, the average TAG award covers only about 15 percent of the “sticker price,” including room and board. And many NJCU students lose their TAG eligibility because fewer than one-quarter graduate in less than 10 semesters, when their eligibility expires.
“While student aid, primarily Tuition Aid Grants (TAG), appears to exceed what would have been required to keep up with rising tuitions -- and by a noticeable margin -- these numbers do not take account of the dramatic increase in enrollment and an equally dramatic rise in tuition and other charges,” reads the report.
The governor is also proposing making a 4 percent cut to the Educational Opportunity Fund for extremely needy students, though he is restoring 35 percent of the funding to the Urban Scholarship Program he announced in 2012. Another bright spot is the DREAM Act, which Christie signed last year. The act offers in-state tuition to undocumented students who’d attended high school in the state for at least three years. But he stopped short of accepting a Democratic provision that would have also extended state-sponsored financial aid to these students.
Christie campaigned on a promise to prioritize higher education. So some of his critics objected when it took him 16 months to appoint the state’s first secretary of higher education, a position that was created just before his inauguration. In May 2011, he named acting deputy education commissioner Rochelle Hendricks, who’s charged with serving as an advocate for public colleges and universities in a time of diminishing funding. But some critics still bristle that the secretary’s power pales in comparison with that of the higher education chancellor, who oversaw a higher education department that Christie Todd Whitman did away with in 1994.
“It has nothing approaching the leadership and guidance that was in the department before its abolition,” laments MacInnes.
“She’s got a very small staff and any executive officer in any state is responsible for a lot of federal reporting and state responsibilities that used to belong to the commission on higher education. There was no rational discussion about what (duties) should stay and what shouldn’t,” said Michael Klein, executive director of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities (NJASCU).
“So the secretary got left with a lot of responsibilities. Plus, it’s not the cabinet officer’s job to be an advocate for that particular policy area. They work for the governor,” he added.
Earlier this year, Christie signed a bill to create a task force to study college affordability. Though the commission can study whatever it likes, it has a directive to explore concepts like accelerated degree programs and “pay-it-forward” programs that allow students to pay tuition after they’ve secured a post-graduation job.
He also signed a bill that requires county colleges to offer health insurance to students but allows students without insurance to enroll. Last year, Christie signed a tenure reform bill supported by the NJASCU that extends tenure from five years to six. The law gives professors more time to finish their tenure requirements before facing a tenure board.