TRENTON – Higher education leaders painted a grim picture today of the state of New Jersey college and university infrastructure.
The information was not new, because the officials have been before legislators before, but the setting was: the first convening of the Senate Higher Education Committee.
Susan A. Cole, president of Montclair State University, told that panel that when all of the state’s colleges and universities – public and private, two-year and four-year – assessed their highest-priority capital needs, the figure totaled approximately $6 billion, the largest portion of which would be from the 12 senior public institutions.
Cole, Rutgers President Richard McCormick, Passaic County Community College President Steven Rose and other educational leaders implored the committee to push for a bond issue – the last one was in 1988 – to fund critical needs that have gone unaddressed for years and which they say are forcing New Jersey students to go elsewhere and preventing top teachers from coming here.
For example, Cole said that one of Montclair’s strengths is biological and life sciences. “I can’t hire any scientist in those fields because I have no labs to put them in,’’ she said. “There have to be adequate laboratories for students to pursue these fields.’’
These types of problems – from basics such as sidewalk and ceiling repairs to having state-of-the-art laboratories to attract top teaching talent – affect all types of institutions from large public universities such as Rutgers to smaller community colleges, witnesses said.
McCormick, Rutgers president as well as chair of the N.J. Presidents Council, told the committee that history shows the voters will support such bond issues.
He said that since the 1988 bond issue, the student population in the state has increased 46 percent, or roughly 140,000 students.
And Cole said that operating appropriations have declined from $956 million in fiscal year 2006 to $716 million in fiscal year 2012, roughly a 25 percent decline in six years.
During that same period, enrollment in the senior public institutions grew about 17 percent, from about 152,000 to 178,000, she said.
“Over the years, before various legislative committees, New Jersey higher education facilities have been under-built and under-supported,” Cole said.
The stories resonated with committee members.
“We all agree that the resources are vital,’’ said Sen. Thomas Kean Jr., (R-21), Westfield. “The issue is the amount the state can afford.’’
There are key questions – including how much to ask for – before a bond issue can be put before voters, he said.
And committee chair Sen. Sandra Cunningham, (D-31), Jersey City, said that Gov. Christie has said publicly how important higher education is. “We intend to hold him to it,’’ she said.
Cunningham said at some point she will meet with Higher Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks concerning these issues.
But the educational leaders indicated that new funding for higher-education infrastructure must be a priority.
If it is not, “We will not provide the kind of public higher-education infrastructure that New Jersey needs to grow its economy and sustain the quality of life for its population,” Cole said.