Without a $6 billion higher-education bond issue, it will fall to tuition increases to fund the construction of 300 academic projects across New Jersey's colleges, university representatives said today at a higher education capital construction conference sponsored by the New Jersey Alliance for Action.
"We're the only state in the nation that has seen almost no capital investment in higher education in a quarter of a century," Rutgers University President Richard McCormick said. "Bond issue or not, we'll continue to undertake capital projects, but in its continued absence, these projects will rely on students through their tuitions to a gravely unfair degree."
The issue is getting particular interest at Rowan University, thanks to a little-explored portion of the legislation to reorganize public higher education that would designate Rowan as a research institution. When asked how such a designation might be reflected in a higher education bond question, state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) said South Jersey schools are due their fair share.
"The funding in the last fiscal year for southern New Jersey was only 9.5 percent, when we have population of 30 percent," Norcross said.
"In southern New Jersey, those research dollars have historically stayed on the other side of the river, with institutions in and around Philadelphia. We want to change that," he said. "That has been an economic stimulus that we'd love to see here in southern New Jersey, between Rutgers and Rowan universities."
But state designation does not carry the weight of being accredited as a research institution by the Commission on Higher Education, according to Joe Cardona, spokesman for Rowan University.
"All it says is that the mission of the university has changed," Cardona said. "There's a national need for many disciplines that we would be able to satisfy. It allows for us to start moving in the direction of introducing those professional degree programs that are needed."
Cardona said Rowan's submission for a higher education bond issue, which has been discussed in Trenton, was focused on current needs, and didn't take into consideration the proposed designation
"That's not saying that you can't change it, but it's not like we would be getting hundreds of millions of dollars to do construction. That wouldn't happen," Cardona said.
The bond issue would have a much wider impact than just at research institutions, though. Montclair State University President Susan Cole attributed slow growth at the school to the lack of space on campuses for increased enrollment, noting she's had to "turn away qualified New Jersey students who want to study science" because the school has "completely run out of lab space."
"More than any other time, higher education plays a key role in the state's economic security," said Rochelle Hendricks, secretary of the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education. "Our state's future depends on more graduates, and that means we need more room to accommodate that growth."
While universities in New Jersey continue to benefit from public-private partnership construction projects, launched under the state's Economic Stimulus Act, Cole said Montclair is "ready to put the shovel in the ground the minute the funding is there" for nonrevenue projects like its new Center for Environmental and Life Sciences.
"We need more of the things we already have just to serve the number of students we're already serving, and to increase that number going forward," Cole said. "I'm hoping, in this administration, we can say we solved the capital problem for New Jersey's higher education permanently, so in 25 years, we're not saying this again."