By Tom Moran/ The Star-Ledger

New Jersey has several good public colleges and universities. But they are not great, not by a long shot.
The central problem is that Trenton has starved these schools of money for decades. We are the big spenders on K-12 education, but the national misers on higher ed — ranking near the very bottom.

Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger New Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross.
Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger New Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross.
So the classrooms and labs are often old and shabby. Tuitions are among the highest in the nation. The classes are overcrowded. And many of the best researchers are taking jobs in other states, with investors and jobs following them.

But there is a second problem: The system is a disorganized mess. There is no rational and predictable funding system — just a political scramble each year. The schools jump into the Trenton mosh pit and fight for any scraps they can get.

And then there is Rutgers University, expanding every year in an almost desperate reach for more and more tuition, with the mother ship in New Brunswick sucking resources from its main satellites in impoverished Camden and Newark.

And as big as Rutgers is, it lacks the pieces it really needs to complete its puzzle. The medical school on its doorstep, the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, belongs to a separate public university based in Newark, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. So does the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and the School of Public Health.

The result is that Rutgers has never been able to live up to its potential. It can’t attract the federal grants and top researchers it could if all the pieces fit together as one. It is respected by most and beloved by some. But it is not in the same league as the nation’s great public universities, in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

In Newark and Camden, meanwhile, there is resentment that New Brunswick holds all the power and controls the money. If New Brunswick is struggling to stay afloat, they say, then the satellites are drowning.

Now, finally, there is consensus that New Jersey must do better. And, as always in Jersey politics, the power brokers have struck a deal behind closed doors.


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