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NJ Governor Proposes $20M Cut to Community Colleges

Community colleges in New Jersey are gearing up for a fight to save $20M in cuts to the statewide budget to its 18 two-year schools. According to New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, the “cuts” simply restore the previous state community college funding level.

Last year, the state increased funding to its community colleges by $20M, but at the time, said that the extra cash was a one-time increase. The state argues that declines in attendance at community colleges should translate to a lower funding level.

Community college leaders there say that they’ve gone without funding increases for the last 10-15 years, and that they need the additional funding to be made permanent by the New Jersey legislature.

The cuts are not insignificant. They amount to about $1.1M on average per institution. While the schools could make up the shortfall by raising student attendance costs by an average of about $100 per student. Schools are loath to do that because their students are exceptionally cost-sensitive.

This is one of the failings of a per-student funding model. A per-student approach to funding ignores the fact that community colleges have sunk costs that don’t change when the number of students declines. Without increased funding, schools are less likely to be able to afford initiatives that help retain existing students and attract new ones.

On the other hand, schools have a responsibility to keep student attendance costs as low as possible. Actions that raise the operational costs of the institution – like administrative hiring, and excessive executive compensation – also take away from the school’s ability to attract and retain students.

Community colleges can raise tuition or cut expenses

I find it funny that schools – including WCC – are willing to complain loudly about the lack of state support or alleged reductions in state funding, but they have no problem shuffling the cost of their own decisions (like new construction projects and mushrooming maintenance backlogs) off on students.

Apparently, it’s the state’s responsibility to keep attendance costs low by ensuring continuous growth in the annual appropriation, but it’s ok to raise tuition by a few dollars per hour when the administration needs to patch its own overspending.

Last year, the WCC Board of Trustees raised student tuition by $4 per credit hour for in-district students. Before that, they ginned up a “technology infrastructure fee” which ended up going into the general fund. It would not surprise me if they raised tuition again this year or instituted a new fee of some kind. $100 per credit hour is a psychological barrier that they tried hard not to cross last year. Unless they find ways to cut their spending, soon enough they will have to revisit the $100 barrier.

Photo Credit: Ervins Strauhmanis , via Flickr