New Jersey must invest more in higher education

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board

The cost of higher education in New Jersey continues to outpace the rate of inflation at most schools, another symptom of the state’s stinginess toward its colleges and universities.
Increases in tuition and fees at two dozen public and private schools will range from 1.6 percent at Rutgers University to more than 7 percent Ramapo College and New Jersey City University, according to a survey by The Star-Ledger’s Kelly Heyboer.

No doubt, these hikes will cause plenty of grumbling, and yes, the schools could do more to contain costs. The news that Phil Furmanski, a former vice president at Rutgers, will get a $400,000 bonus when he rejoins the school’s faculty next year is bound to grate on students who are piling on more and more debt. Presidents of some of the public colleges and universities are earning too much and have perks such as country club memberships, houses, cars and drivers. That has to stop.

But that’s not the root problem. Salaries at public colleges and universities in New Jersey are about average, according to a survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The real problem is that New Jersey shortchanges these public institutions. We are among the most generous states in the country when it comes to K-12 education, but our aid to public colleges and universities is among the lowest.

The result is that these schools are overcrowded and often mediocre, as a report from a commission led by former Gov. Thomas Kean concluded earlier this year. That means some middle-class families are shut out altogether. And it means private companies, from pharmaceuticals to telecommunications, are taking their investments elsewhere, where they can form research partnerships with top-notch universities.

Gov. Chris Christie cut spending on higher education during his first year in office, but not last year. He agrees New Jersey needs to spend more to improve its public colleges and universities, and says it will be a top priority when the state’s budget is in better shape.

But his own conservative political philosophy is a great obstacle to that plan. As long as he refuses to raise state taxes, it is difficult to see how he will be able to deliver, especially at a time when the state’s failure to make full pension payments has forced a downgrade in its credit rating. Such is the price of small government.