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Op-Ed: Bring NJ’s Independent Schools into Budget Discussions

Although the state’s independent colleges and universities offer diversity of community and opportunity, they may go unrecognized during broader budget discussions

st. peter's university

Budget season in the state of New Jersey is always an interesting time. It brings with it philosophical discussions about what funding priorities should and should not be. School funding has been at the top of the list. Supporting increased funding for all forms of education is important. Higher education, however, and specifically, the state’s independent colleges and universities, have seemingly been left out of the discussion. It is time these schools are given the budgetary attention they need and deserve.

Saint Peter’s University is one of 14 independent and nonprofit colleges and universities that serve approximately 65,000 students across New Jersey. Collectively, we have formed the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of New Jersey, or AICUNJ. In addition to Saint Peter’s, AICUNJ schools include Bloomfield College, Caldwell University, Centenary University, College of St. Elizabeth, Drew University, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Felician University, Georgian Court University, Monmouth University, Princeton University, Rider University, Seton Hall University, and Stevens Institute of Technology.

Higher education in New Jersey is made up of public colleges and universities, independent colleges and universities (AICUNJ institutions), and county community colleges. We understand there is widespread familiarity with public colleges and universities and community colleges. While AICUNJ institutions may go unrecognized during the broader budget discussions, we deliver extraordinary value to New Jersey’s higher education system.

There are countless ways in which AICUNJ schools do this, but one of the biggest areas where we excel is diversity. One-third of all New Jersey minority higher-education students attend an AICUNJ school. Moreover, of all New Jersey higher education institutions, four of the top five with the highest percentage of African-American enrollment and three of the top five with the highest percentage of Hispanic enrollment are AICUNJ schools.

Tremendous opportunity for state, students

This provides tremendous opportunity for our state and for our students. Diversity, however, exists in varying forms. At AICUNJ schools we create community-like atmospheres in which various populations can learn not only from our instructors but also directly from one another. We firmly believe this is the strongest means to create truly diverse communities. Only by hearing and understanding views and backgrounds different from ours will we truly learn to respect and understand one another. This is yet another area where AICUNJ schools excel.

How do AICUNJ colleges and universities do that? The average size of an AICUNJ institution is 4,600 students, meaning a more personalized environment. Twelve of our 14 schools are smaller than the smallest state college or university.

Our schools create $3.5 billion in economic output for the state, and we have programs that connect our students to employers within our communities. In short, AICUNJ schools not only foster atmospheres that encourage diversity, but also work to ensure the economic benefits of the education we provide are realized in underserved communities.

These are exactly the kinds of things the state should be prioritizing when it makes budgetary decisions. Taxpayers want to know their dollars are producing real, tangible results that provide value for them and their community. There are many worthwhile programs and causes to advocate for, but ensuring diversity of community and of opportunity are among the most important. It speaks to the values New Jersey must hold dear and to our role as a national leader in this area. If our funding priorities are not reflective of our priorities as a people, the process is simply not working.

That is why AICUNJ schools deserve fairer, broader support during the budget process. AICUNJ schools, while grateful for the assistance, have been provided with a minimum of state funding. The main state programs that deliver this funding are Tuition Assistance Grants (TAG) and New Jersey Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) grants, both of which are awarded to individual students, as well as a modest amount — $1 million shared among 14 institutions — of operating aid. Over the years, funding for these programs has remained largely flat or has not kept up with inflation. An increase in any or all of these aid programs will expand on the value of the programs we offer and bolster the progress AICUNJ schools have already made on diversity.

As budget decisions are being made in Trenton, we encourage our state representatives and the governor to take a closer look at AICUNJ schools by reviewing our latest impact report. We are more than just a college or a university. We are centers of learning that provide diversity of community and diversity of opportunity. And our students are worth the investment.

Eugene J. Cornacchia is the president of Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City.

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