Memo to Next Governor: Appoint Blue Ribbon Panel on Higher Education

Colleen O'Dea | October 17, 2017 | Education
State support for higher education has diminished markedly in past two decades, while tuition has gone up without making more funding available to low-income and middle-class students

New Jersey’s next governor needs to raise the profile of higher education, provide more funding for colleges and low-income students, and bring the public back into the process of higher education planning and oversight, urges a new report.

The report by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank, calls for a return to the treatment of the state’s higher education as a priority both for funding and planning, as it was between 1968 and 1993, before the elimination of the state Department of Higher Education. While not calling specifically for re-creating that department with a state chancellor, the report advocates for a commission to study that question, as well as how to improve the state’s higher education system and provide colleges with more funds.

“Our next governor will have the opportunity to elevate public colleges and universities as a high-priority issue,” said NJPP president Gordon MacInnes, who wrote the report. “Building a strong and high quality system of public higher education is organically tied to New Jersey’s economic future.”

“Over the last quarter century, New Jersey’s support for public higher education has declined noticeably, resulting in higher costs and rising debt for students and their families,” the report states. “The new governor and Legislature taking the reins in 2018 must begin to reset state investments and support for public higher education. New Jersey’s future depends on it.”

Revitalizing state support

Of paramount importance, the next governor needs to reverse nearly two decades of declining state support for public colleges, the report contends.

Between the start of the Great Recession in 2008 and 2016 alone, New Jersey cut the amount it subsidizes colleges’ operating costs by an inflation-adjusted 21 percent, while enrollment has risen by 15 percent. Not surprisingly, public college tuition and fees rose, and so did student debt. Rowan University students living on campus suffered the greatest increases, a nearly doubling of debt for four-year students and a 132-percent increase, to $40,100 in 2016, for students graduating in six years.

Tracking changes in higher ed

The report tracks the changes in higher education in the state that resulted from a commission empaneled by Gov. Richard J. Hughes in the 1960s to improve higher education in New Jersey. At the time, the state had a few private colleges, Rutgers University, Newark College of Engineering, four county colleges, and six teacher-prep colleges overseen by the Department of Education.

Chaired by Princeton University president Robert Goheen, the commission in 1966 termed public higher education in New Jersey to be in “crisis.” It urged the state to create a department of higher education and a system of county colleges, convert the teacher colleges into multi-purpose institutions, found new state colleges, and establish medical schools. The governor and the Legislature did so and began transforming and adding schools and, with voter approval, investing in the schools in order to update facilities and add residential housing.

Stay-at-home students

With new schools, better facilities, and more financial assistance, the percentage of students choosing to stay in New Jersey rose from about 40 percent in the early 1960s to 62 percent in 1994, the report states.

Then in 1994, Gov. Christie Whitman oversaw the decentralization of public higher education by abolishing the Department of Higher Education. Gov. Chris Christie went further in 2011, eliminating the state Commission of Higher Education created under Whitman to work with the college Presidents Council on overseeing planning and policy coordination for the higher education system and advise the governor and Legislature on budget and policy priorities.

Susanna Tardi, the higher education executive vice president at the American Federation of Teachers of New Jersey said the system currently “lacks top down accountability.”

Except for the 2012 $750 million bond issue, the report asserts that “higher education is simply no longer a high-profile statewide issue.” And the percentage of New Jersey students staying in state to go to college has dropped to 57 percent.

No public input

One major complaint from NJPP is that, particularly since Gov. Chris Christie eliminated the Commission of Higher Education, there is virtually no public input into any actions taken by the colleges and in important decisions being made by the state.

“For the last quarter century, important policies governing higher education have been decided by a small room of political leaders, acting without informing the public or including the affected institutions, with the apparent aim of shifting resources to South Jersey and protecting Rutgers,” the report avers.

It cites as examples recent decisions to expand medical education, integrate the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into Rutgers, and the creation of The Cooper Medical School of Rowan University.

And MacInnes pointed out that a plan to add a fifth medical school in the state — a joint venture between Seton Hall University and Hackensack Meridian Health — got a boost through “a single line item in the state budget … without public discussion.” Christie’s current budget includes a $15 million grant in the Department of Treasury’s budget for “Seton Hall University School of Health and Medical Sciences Support.”

“New Jersey must begin to prudently chip away and reverse decades of disinvestment, but it must also restore sunlight to the difficult issues confronting higher education’s future and enlarge the discussion beyond the small room of transactional politics that has characterized the recent past,” the report states.

While detailing what it calls the decline in the state’s higher education system, the report does not go so far as to call for the reinstitution of a department as a requirement for improvement.

Blue ribbon commission

“We are not taking the position that that model needs to be resurrected, that’s why we’re calling for the next governor to convene a real blue ribbon commission to come back with an approach that makes sense,” said MacInnes, emphasizing that whatever new approach is taken must ensure that higher education is given greater attention than it has been.

Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) who is chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, said the question of whether the state needs another higher education chancellor needs to be examined. Regardless of whether that happens, “it’s clear the secretary of higher education lacks the resources to do what is required,” Jasey said, adding that Secretary Rochelle Hendricks “has a skeletal staff.” The secretary’s website lists a staff of 20.

A new commission, made up of leaders from biotech, finance, technology, philanthropy, labor, the immigrant community, private and public colleges, and arts and cultural institutions, should be charged with examining the higher education system within a year after its creation. Among its charges should be:

  • Analyze the performance of community colleges in maximizing student opportunities, including by preparing young adults to complete a four-year degree;
  • Recommend ways to improve the four-year and six-year graduation rates of state colleges;
  • Determine how to give more attention to higher education;
  • Examine the best ways to optimize scarce resources to fund the schools, perhaps by targeting them at specific institutions or at county colleges or by increasing aid to students from low-income families.
  • Tardi said that, in particular, there needs to be a renewed focus on students and how “to prepare them to meet the current needs of the workforce.”

    While the report was aimed at the state’s next governor, neither Democratic nominee Phil Murphy, nor Republican nominee and current Lieutenant Gov. Kim Guadagno, returned requests for comment on it.