NJ community colleges balk at cuts in Murphy budget

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

Sheila Noonan for NJ Spotlight

County colleges say any reduction in state support will mean losses for students and workers and will hamper the economic recovery

Mercer County Community College in West Windsor

New Jersey’s county colleges say they can be an “engine” for economic recovery. But Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget proposal, which he said is about “building a new economy that grows our middle class,” calls for a sharp decrease in state support for community colleges.

“There is no question there will be repercussions for our students in the form of increased tuition costs and a significant decrease in student services and support due to reductions in staff,” said Donald Borden, president of Camden County College, in a news release from all 18 college presidents making their case for more aid.

The colleges had sought $100 million in state operating aid in the nine-month spending plan released last week. But they’ve been allocated $75 million at a time when they had been planning to take a leadership role in training a post-pandemic workforce.

Already, says Aaron Fichtner, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, state operating aid to community colleges decreased $34 million from April through September, against a backdrop of a decade where aid from Trenton has barely kept up with inflation. And while funding levels are subject to change during budget hearings, the combined projected loss to state community colleges could be as high as $59 million.

Nicole Kirgan, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education said COVID-19 “has significantly impacted our state, our economy, our budget and our finances in an incredibly unpredictable and rapidly changing way” and that budget decisions affecting all sectors of higher education were “difficult.”

“The revised budget proposal includes more than $1.2 billion in dozens of strategic reductions, and we know that some of them would pose significant impacts on residents and institutions if enacted. None of these decisions were taken lightly, and the governor will continue advocating for additional federal aid needed to maintain institutional supports,” she said.

Gateway institutions

Without the large endowments or foundations of four-year colleges, community colleges — which often serve as an affordable gateway for first-generation college students — rely on state aid as an important revenue source.

“We certainly understand the state’s very difficult financial challenges,” said Fichtner. “However, with more than one million unemployed New Jerseyans, a continuing pandemic and systemic racism, this isn’t the time to disinvest in community colleges, which provide educational and training opportunities to more than 300,000 people in our state each year. It’s the time to chart a new future.”

The college presidents are now making their case to the public and looking for grassroots support to get the funding restored. Lawmakers must approve a budget by Oct. 1 and have the power to reverse Murphy’s aid cuts.

“Throughout this COVID-19 crisis, we have worked tirelessly to serve our students and constituency in spite of rolling furloughs, supply reductions, and layoffs,” said Dr. Michael Gorman, president of Salem Community College. “Current budget proposals ask us to do even more with even less. At a point, this is simply unrealistic, and certainly counterproductive.”

If there’s positive news for college students in the proposed budget, it’s that funding for two popular financial-aid programs remains the same when compared with actual dollars awarded in the 2019-2020 academic year.

Murphy’s budget proposal allocates $437,887,000 for the need-based Tuition Aid Grant (TAG) program, which provides aid to a third of New Jersey’s full-time college students. Higher Education Student Assistance Authority spokesperson Jennifer Azzarano said the governor’s budget provides sufficient funding to cover the 2020-2021 Tuition Aid Grant schedule approved by its board on July 22.

The Community College Opportunity Grant (CCOG) program, a Murphy administration free-tuition initiative, awarded $19.6 million as of June 30. That level of funding remains intact with a combined total of $20 million in CCOG awards split between the stop-gap appropriation bill from earlier this year and the $10 million Murphy recommended last week, Azzarano said.

Federal Aid Provides Relief

With state budgets hit hard by the pandemic, federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds earmarked for higher education have provided relief — and New Jersey officials aim to keep pursuing help from Washington.

Community colleges, notes Kirgan, have received “significant federal aid” through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund and additional allocations through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) package and Coronavirus Relief Fund.

Under GEER, the state’s 18 community colleges shared nearly $13 million, ranging from awards of $1.1 million for Bergen Community College to $89,945 for Salem Community College. The state’s 13 senior public colleges were allocated about $55 million collectively.

New Jersey will allocate $150 million in federal Coronavirus Relief Funds to public and private colleges for costs related to cleaning and disinfecting supplies and the transition to online learning. Community colleges will receive $22.2 million of those funds, with senior public universities getting $126.7 million and $1 million to be distributed among independent nonprofit colleges.

When the Coronavirus Relief Fund allocations were announced in August, Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), chair of that body’s Higher Education committee, noted that “as long as the virus is among us, colleges will face unprecedented fiscal challenges. We’ll need continued assistance from the federal government to further help colleges address this crisis.”

CARES Act grants have helped community colleges respond to the pandemic and purchase the personal protective equipment and plexiglass they need to re-open to in-person instruction, Fichtner said. But they “aren’t a replacement for state aid,” she added.