As Christie Suggests Ways to Improve Colleges, Results Are Mixed Back Home

John Mooney | June 16, 2015 | Education
Governor’s measures have made state’s system more efficient but aid to poorer students, funding for higher education have declined

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Gov. Chris Christie delivers a speech last week at Stockton State University. He called for dropping the Common Core State Standards but keeping the PARCC testing associated with those standards.
When Gov. Chris Christie last week put forward his 15-point plan for the nation’s education system, more than half of it dealt with higher education – an area in which the governor has had mixed results in his own state.

The plan, presented during a speech at Iowa State University in Ames, included ideas for improving the quality of colleges and universities, while making them more accessible and affordable.

Christie called for more transparency and efficiency in college finances, describing the sector as profligate and in need of reforms. He called on institutions of higher education to itemize their costs and said they could be saving money by being “leaner and smarter” in their operations.

He also called for more innovation and creation of alternative programs, including “stackable” certifications and more internships linking higher education and industry.

Meanwhile, Christie said rising costs are putting higher education out of reach for many, especially those at the bottom end of the economic scale.

“For too many students, they’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” Christie said. “They can go to college, struggle to get by, and face crippling debts. Or they cannot go to college – and face the loss of economic opportunities and mobility that comes from that. It’s time we stop making a college education a choice between the lesser of two hardships.”

Back home, however, the Christie administration has hardly been showering the New Jersey’s public colleges and universities with cash, with state operating aid dropping nearly 10 percent since 2009.

In addition, financial aid for the state’s neediest students has taken a hit, including Christie’s proposed 19 percent cut in the NJ STARS program at community colleges and a 3.9 percent cut to the Education Opportunity Fund for low-income students.

But there have also been strides, such as the state’s first capital-improvements bond act for higher education, the first in 30 years.

In the non-financial sphere, efficiency measures enacted under Christie have included creation of the cabinet-level post of state higher education secretary and a massive reorganization of Rutgers University.

Some other steps taken to improve New Jersey’s higher-education system either preceded Christie or were initiated by others.

[related]For example, a 2009 law that laid out new rules for schools to disclose their costs was passed under former Gov. Jon Corzine, and federal law under the Obama administration ties such disclosure to federal funds. Meanwhile, legislation to get colleges to work more closely with vocational and technical schools on career-related programs was pushed by Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, a Democrat.

In any event, members of New Jersey’s higher education community said it was hard to argue with many of the ideas offered by Christie in his Iowa speech.

“They are good, common-senses issues around affordability and transparency,” said Darryl Greer, a senior fellow at Stockton University focusing on higher education strategy and governance. “The one thing he didn’t recognize is that New Jersey institutions are already doing a lot of this.”

Greer, who previously headed the state’s association of public colleges and universities, said any discussion of affordability must include discussion of the state’s dwindling financial investment in its schools. One accounting by the association calculated that per-pupil state aid has declined steadily since 2003.

“”This is not just his fault, but we’ve been heading in the wrong direction (in terms of state investment) for 20 years,” Greer said.