No Easy Answers About Why It Costs So Much to Attend NJ’s Public Colleges

Carly Sitrin | May 2, 2019 | Budget, Education
Murphy’s proposed budget allocates $1.65 billion to higher education, but some college and university officials politely explain that it’s not enough

Credit: NJTV News
Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis and executive director of the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority David Socolow
In order to combat the notoriously high cost of attending college in New Jersey, the Murphy administration is injecting millions in budget funding and making community college virtually tuition-free. But university leaders say that’s not enough.

Colleges are facing rising costs for faculty salaries and benefits, a serious uptick in the need for mental health services, and pressure to enroll and support minority and financially insecure students. And that, they say, demands much more than the state is proposing.

“The amount of new money … is not sufficient to really make a change,” said Susan Cole, president of Montclair State University, addressing the Assembly Budget and Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate $1.65 billion in direct support for higher education institutions, a 2.6 percent increase from 2019. Senior public colleges and universities would get $737 million to divvy up, an increase of $14 million or 1.9 percent over 2019.

“We’re really talking, all told, about $14 million spread across 13 public four-year campuses in the state,” Cole said. “While I’m grateful for the small amount of money that came that way, truly I am, and for the effort behind it, it’s not enough.”

Lawmakers questioned the Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis, the executive director of the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority David Socolow, and several college presidents from schools of all sizes on Wednesday trying to determine how the costs for New Jersey colleges got so high. They also delved into what can be done to keep college graduates in the state’s workforce.

High school outmigration

“Unfortunately, New Jersey remains the nation’s leading net exporter of college-bound students,” said Harvey Kesselman, president of Stockton University and vice chair of the New Jersey Presidents’ Council. He noted 55 percent of all New Jersey high school graduates who attend college leave New Jersey to pursue higher education. “If the problem of outmigration continues unabated,” he said, “then over 31,000 college-bound students will continue to leave New Jersey each year, taking with them billions of dollars in education-related expenditures, with many of them never returning to the state after graduation.”

Smith Ellis pointed out to legislators that with its “student centric” plan for improving college affordability and work experience (announced in March) coupled with the funding in Murphy’s budget, this administration is already doing more than any in the past 13 years to educate and keep students here.

“For the first time in many years, at the urging of this body, the state has a plan
for the future of higher education,” Smith Ellis testified. “This budget supports college affordability, enhances socioeconomic mobility, and strengthens the talent pipeline that fuels our state’s economy.”

But she also noted that adjustments will likely be needed to the funding plan as operating costs continue to increase. “This is our first go at this,” Smith Ellis said. “We need to start somewhere.”

The education budget

Murphy’s proposed budget ramps up higher education spending across the board but also seeks to incentivize schools to strive for student achievement and do more to support minority students.

The budget includes $35 million for so-called “outcomes-based funding,” which ties state aid to targets like the total number of degrees awarded, degrees given to underrepresented groups, and percentage of students attending a school who qualify for needs-based financial aid. The outcomes-based allocations include $15 million in a redistribution of current state aid and $20 million in new funding.

Smith Ellis said this funding mechanism is more useful than linking state aid to enrollment numbers at the beginning of the year, because the state should be looking to reward schools that graduate their students, not just get them to sign up.

The proposed budget also includes $224.3 million in state aid to the county colleges, an increase of $1.4 million from 2019. But funding to support the operational costs of these schools would remain unchanged from the 2019 appropriation of $134.1 million.

There’s also $58.5 million for Murphy’s “tuition-free” community college program: Community College Opportunity Grants (CCOG). That amount is an increase of $33.5 million that would expand the program, which was piloted last August, to all 19 county colleges for both semesters of the 2019-2020 academic year. That would support approximately 18,000 students with annual family incomes not exceeding $45,000.

Tweaking and tuning

Will Austin, president of Warren County Community College, told lawmakers that from his experience as one of the CCOG pilot schools, the program “has had a significant positive impact on students.” Still, he had some requests: Austin asked legislators to consider appropriating an additional $5 million “to assist colleges in outreach, advising, mentoring, tutoring, and other student support models”; raising the program’s income-eligibility threshold from $45,000 to $77,000 (the state’s median household income); keeping the course credit requirement to six credits rather than the proposed increase to 12, which would give students the option to work to support families or other education costs; extending the CCOG program to summer courses (it’s currently only valid for spring and fall semesters); and covering fees for workforce programs like nursing and culinary/hospitality studies that are currently not covered.

The budget would increase funding for the Educational Opportunity Fund Program, which is reserved for students from “educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds” to $47.6 million — 5 percent or $2.25 million above 2019 aid. The Tuition Aid Grant (TAG) program would get $437.9 million, an increase of $5 million or 1.2 percent over 2019.

Coming to terms with sticker shock

During the nearly four-hour committee hearing, lawmakers repeatedly returned to one question as they considered the funding requests presented in the budget: Why does college cost so much?

Smith Ellis noted that the total bill that goes to students reflects how much the state is contributing; the cost of faculty salaries and health benefits, which compound each year; and outstanding campus needs like mental health counselors and money to support minority and first-generation students. All of those costs have been increasing rapidly as the state’s contribution remained essentially flat for years.

Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic) brought up the growing safety concerns on college campuses nationwide and asked what New Jersey can be doing better. He mourned the loss of six people at the most recent shooting this week at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and asked the college representatives present if they are receiving enough funding to support counselors on campus.

Cole said that for Montclair, with a fully commissioned police force, emergency services, ambulance, and round-the-clock extensive mental health services, “No, we do not have enough funding.”

“[This is] an area of responsibility that all of the institutions of higher education have had to take on over the years, an unfunded mandate to keep our campuses safe in a changing world,” Cole said.

Rowan University president Ali Houshmand mirrored her sentiments.

“We cannot spend enough money,” he said. “In five years, we went from five counselors to fifteen-and-a-half.”

The costs of doing business

In addition, faculty across the state are pushing for higher salaries and better health benefits and working conditions. That all gets passed along to students and their families in their tuition bills, college representatives said. At Rutgers, for example, officials have said a 1 percent increase in faculty salaries would require a 1.3 percent increase in tuition and fees to offset the cost to the university.

“I don’t want you to leave with the impression that the institutions of higher education are in any flush financial position,” Rutgers president Robert Barchi told the committee. “At Rutgers, on a $4.6 billion budget we struggle to break even … We are constantly worried about what the next month looks like and what the next year looks like.”

However, Barchi also came under scrutiny from Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Union), who cited the $5.5 million in so-called incentive pay the school handed out to top administrators last year. Barchi defended the payouts.

“They’re not bonuses,” Barchi argued. “It’s not something I do because I like you or happen to know you or anything of that nature … What it really is is taking some of your compensation and putting it at risk. You don’t get it unless you perform to predetermined goals in a predetermined way.”

And while Barchi answered lawmakers’ questions, hundreds of part-time lecturers at Rutgers’ campuses across the state staged a “grade-in” protest to demand pay-per course increases and healthcare plans as they continue their tense negotiations with the university administration.

“Please ask Barchi for the adjuncts here when he plans to pay PTLs $7,250 and health care, a mere 1/34th of his bonus pay per adjunct,” the AAUP-AFT union Tweeted at NJ Spotlight.

“It is one of our greatest pains and anxieties that we have to raise tuition for students,” Cole said. “If you’re on the front lines of the institutions the way we are, the thing that kills us the most is getting up in the morning and knowing we have to raise tuition because there is no other way to give [our students] the quality of education that will be meaningful.”