NJPP Testimony: State Disinvestment Putting College Out of Reach and Harming New Jersey’s Economy

This testimony was delivered to the New Jersey College Affordability Study Commission this afternoon.

Good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to speak here today. My name is Brandon McKoy and I am a policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective, a nonpartisan think tank that aims to create a robust state economy and promote shared prosperity.

An important part of creating a strong economy is building a highly educated workforce – a characteristic which New Jersey has historically been known for. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, the cost of a college education at New Jersey universities and colleges has dramatically increased. At the same time, incomes have been stagnant, forcing students and families to borrow more and more in student loans in order to secure an education.

Between the 1995-96 school year and the 2011-12 school year, the cost of tuition and fees increased 329 percent here at my alma mater, The College of New Jersey. And that’s below average! Costs rose at state colleges an average of 373 percent during that same time; at county colleges the average increase was 128 percent.

The primary driver of rising costs is a severe reduction in the level of state investment. There was a time when New Jersey made an affordable college education a priority and reflected that commitment in the amount of support public colleges and universities received in the state budget. Unfortunately, that level of support has dwindled.

In 1995, spending on higher education made up 8.4 percent of the state budget; by 2012 its share was down to 6.1 percent, a 27.4 percent drop. When adjusting for inflation, state support for Rutgers declined a staggering 85 percent. All of this has occurred as the number of students enrolled at state colleges and universities continues to increase, meaning that funding levels per student are also significantly lower than before.

It is clear that New Jersey has shifted its priorities away from higher education, particularly in operating support for four-year colleges and universities that goes to pay for libraries, faculty salaries and utilities, among other things. As students and families have had the costs of higher education shift from state government onto them, unsurprisingly, the amount of borrowing and student loan debt has increased.

All of this debt is preventing people from pursuing the things necessary to advance in life, from having the ability to take the risks, personally and professionally, that are vital to success and achievement. This strangles the state’s potential for innovation and economic success, and is undermining the ability to create a highly educated workforce – a historical hallmark of the Garden State.

The best way to generate economic growth that produces well-paying jobs is to invest in strengthening New Jersey’s place as a center of innovation, research and science. An important part of this requires stabilizing the operating budgets of colleges and universities, and returning the level of state support for higher education to where it once was and beyond. As long as the state continues to pursue economic development and prosperity purely through a strategy of tax cuts and corporate tax subsidies, students will continue to suffer and the future viability of the state and its workforce will be imperiled.

New Jersey can once again be known for affordable and high quality higher education, but getting there means making it a priority in the state budget. We’ve done it before, and now we need to do it again.