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Can Murphy Live Up to His Promises About Higher Education?

The new governor’s intentions are good, but he has yet to offer much in the way of specifics concerning his strategy

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Gov. Phil Murphy with his wife Tammy and Michael Cioce, acting president of Rowan College at Burlington County

New Jersey’s public colleges and universities had a rough decade under former Govs. Chris Christie and Jon Corzine, with state funding flat or falling and enrollments on the rise.

The election of Phil Murphy was seen as a hopeful turn.

But so far it is still wait and see, at best; Murphy continues to promise more support to higher education and especially community colleges, while offering few details to match his pledges.

Yesterday, he took the subject on the road to Mount Laurel, where he and his wife Tammy led an event at Rowan College at Burlington County promoting his promise of tuition-free community college.

His staff and the school’s lined up students who spoke about the value of their education and the obvious help that state-funded tuition would provide. Administrators gushed at the opportunity, and Murphy spoke to the importance of the public investment to the state as a whole.

“The passion we have for community colleges is well-known,” he said. “If we are to get the innovation economy going again, we will have a gap in our workforce unless we can double down on what [community colleges] are doing. If we do that, it is a potential game-changer.”

“We want to work with you all to achieve that aspiration, and a big piece of that is whether we can make these colleges affordable and accessible,” he said.

Still no specifics

But afterward in brief remarks with reporters, Murphy offered no specifics on how that guarantee would work and whether the estimated $200 million a year — or even a portion of it — would be included in his first budget presented next month.

“We’re still at the early stages of putting the building blocks of our budget together,” Murphy said to reporters’ questions. “I don’t know [if additional money will be included]. As I have said, I don’t think we will get this done tomorrow, but we have strong aspirations.”

It’s been that kind of ride for Murphy as he seeks to hit the ground running as the new governor, but he’s been challenged to match his campaign rhetoric to his governing reality.

Higher education takes a hit

The challenge is no greater for the state’s public higher education system, which has seen a 40 percent drop in state support per student over the past 25 years, a pattern that started before Christie.

It was supposed to be different under Murphy, who made education and higher education centerpieces of his campaign last year, citing them as critical investments for making the state and its economy stronger.

Yesterday’s event provided a perfect backdrop, visiting a school that has been as innovative as any in providing community college students a headstart to gain the needed credits to ultimately earn a four-year degree.

Pix and Fort Dix

Included were students from a cross-section of New Jersey, from a military wife from nearby Fort Dix aspiring to go into government to another who has settled on a photography major and wants to start his own photo business.

“I still struggle with the costs,” said Brian O’Neil, a psychology major who was the first student to speak. “My parents still support me as they can, with my father working two jobs to help pay for my tuition … I am paying them back as much as I can, depending on what they need.”

Nonetheless, there are some skeptics in the state’s higher education system who wonder whether the promises will match the action.

The education transition report out of the governor’s office also made a slew of recommendations about higher education, but fell well short of any pledges to reverse the decades of diminished funding.

And even the notion of tuition-free community college did not draw universal support, including from those representing four-year schools.

“A blanket free-community college approach is far from an ideal solution for achieving the [governor’s] goals,” said Pamela Hersh, communications director of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Hersh and the association yesterday offered a host of concerns, including whether such a program would benefit higher-income students more than lower. They asked whether it would diminish the value of their schools as well.

“The major policy concern over the free-tuition proposals aimed at community colleges is whether they will help produce more college graduates,” Hersh said in an email.

“Only about 20 percent of full-time students who start at community colleges earn an associate’s degree within three years. Moreover, studies indicate that students who are capable of starting at a four-year institution but enroll instead in a two-year institution are less likely to graduate.”

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