Bureaucracy will not make college affordable
In 1994, when the New Jersey Department of Higher Education was dismantled, the governance of our state’s public colleges and universities became one of the most progressive and enlightened in the nation. Since that time, the achievements of New Jersey’s higher education institutions have been nothing short of extraordinary. Ironically, immediately upon the approval of these governance changes, there were voices of criticism and disapproval. Skeptics of the system are largely unmoved by the facts that demonstrate improvement and, unfortunately, there is presently a move afoot in the New Jersey Legislature to implement onerous government controls that would dramatically limit the decision-making and long-range-planning authority of the state’s public colleges and universities.
With strong guidance from our Boards of Trustees, the New Jersey state colleges and universities have improved the quality and value of education at every single school. Even at TCNJ, where excellence dates back through many generations of alumni, increased autonomy has enhanced our operations and performance. For comparison’s sake, TCNJ received 4,395 applicants for 1,037 slots in 1985; graduated 56 percent of its undergraduates within six years; and enrolled a freshman class with an average SAT score of 1015. Today, we graduate nearly 86 percent of our students within six years (far exceeding national averages); receive nearly 8,600 applications for only 1,300 slots; and have enrolled freshman classes during the last two years with average SAT scores of approximately 1290.
We have transformed TCNJ’s curriculum to add depth and breadth to our students’ knowledge bases. We have also added new programs that address the interests of our students and the needs of the state, and updated others that were in need of adjustment.
The real culprit in the crime of runaway tuition bills is the dramatic decline in state financial support for higher education.
Yet some in the State House want to roll back the clock and create an additional layer of costly bureaucracy to oversee such functions as the setting of programmatic mission, the recommendations of Board of Trustee members, and even the elimination of academic programs. Politicizing such decisions is not just incorrect; it’s dangerous. Answering to autonomous Boards of Trustees, as the present system stipulates, assures that each college’s most important decisions are approved by an independent group that seeks to support the needs of the state, informed by a full appreciation of a particular institution’s mission and strengths.
So why are the state colleges and universities being threatened with such restrictions? The answer is that the public is concerned about access to and the affordability of higher education. Some have used recent scandals at certain state institutions to paint all of New Jersey’s public colleges and universities with a broad brush. I believe adamantly that colleges should be judicious with their resources and operate transparently, but the real culprit in the crime of runaway tuition bills is the dramatic decline in state financial support for higher education. The state has, essentially, held funding for higher education flat for more than a decade while utilities, insurance, union employee salaries, and other costs beyond the colleges’ control have continued to escalate. Thirty-two percent of TCNJ’s revenues came from state appropriation in 1996, while only 20 percent do today. The institutions have also been forced to invest in infrastructure upgrades, because the state has not passed a facilities bond since 1988. We at TCNJ have, in fact, invested heavily in first-class facilities over these 20 years, because had we not made these investments, our science labs and classrooms would be unable to accommodate the type of work currently being done there, leaving our students underprepared.
As institutions, we must work to maintain our accessibility and affordability in spite of the challenges we face. We must advocate for the notion that higher education in New Jersey is not an expense, but an investment. The New Jersey Association for State Colleges and Universities has begun a campaign called the New Jersey College Promise with just such a purpose. Please take a moment to visit www.njcollegepromise.com/and learn more about that initiative, because additional layers of bureaucracy will only limit our ability to deliver the kind of education that our students and the state deserve.
R. Barbara Gitenstein, PhD President, The College of New Jersey