Higher ed bond act pays off for state colleges, universities

As legacy items go, it may not rank way up there on the list of former Gov. Chris Christie’s accomplishments, but the November 2012 Building Our Future Bond Act is an accomplishment that will be felt across the state for decades to come. After years of crying out for help with their aging campus facilities, presidents of colleges and universities put a full-court press on the Legislature to secure a funding mechanism.

“Building our Future Bond Act was a 10-year journey. We didn’t get there in a minute,” recalled Montclair State University President Susan Cole.

Cole said she and other university heads went through a number of governors before Senate President Steve Sweeney took up their efforts as a priority. It was an effort joined by Christie, still a popular governor at the time.

“There is no question in my mind that we would not have had this legislation without Gov. Christie and without Senate President Sweeney,” she added. “Both of them were absolutely critical to this initiative, and they had to agree. They had to work together to get it done.”

The $750 million referendum passed with over 60 percent of the vote and the impact has been significant. Beginning in 2013, 176 projects at 47 colleges and universities across the state, including community colleges, received funding from the Building Our Future Bond Act. In 2016, 35 additional projects got funding.

At his final State of the State address, the governor reminded lawmakers of the impact the Bond Act has had.

“Let me tell you, nothing is more consequential to our state’s economic future than educational opportunity for our citizens,” said Christie to lawmakers. “We didn’t play small ball, everybody. We acted together and New Jersey’s higher education system is far better today than it was eight years ago as a result of our actions.”

“This bond basically let us play catch up from the last bond, which was in 1988, so it was spectacularly helpful to the institutions,” said Barbara Berreski, interim executive director of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities. “We are one of the few states in the nation that don’t provide regular funding for capital improvements at our institutions.”

At Montclair, it’s meant a new Center for Environmental Life Sciences and a new school of business; a new College of Business building at Rowan University and the renovation of the historic Writer’s House in Camden for Rutgers University. But a lot of money also went to things you can’t see, like upgrades to data centers and Wi-Fi networks at community colleges and upgrades to science lab equipment.

“Prior to the funding, our STEM programs and science programs were somewhat constrained by outdated facilities, which obviously had an adverse impact on our enrollment, and it also had adverse impact on the institution recruiting highly-talented faculty,” said NJCU Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Aaron Aska.

“This bond was really nothing short of a lifesaver for the institutions. And this is where I’d like to stress that it is just critical for us to have regular capital funding,” noted Berreski.

New Jersey is one of eight states that doesn’t directly fund higher education capital projects. Leaders are hoping the new guy, who’s promised to make higher education a priority, will join them in helping to find a recurring state source.

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