As $750M bond issue passes, state seeks more transparency on college spending

But universities say new rules expand bureaucracy

November 12. 2012 3:00AM

With the capital financing bond approved by voters and the higher education restructuring well on its way to the July 1, 2013, deadline, focus in academia has turned toward transparency as a top issue.

William Paterson University officials supported the $750 million bond referendum, but believe the rigorous reporting required for schools to remain accredited should be sufficient for maintaining transparency on college spending. (Wikipedia)

Richard Pokrass, spokesman for the Middle States Higher Education Commission, said governments and taxpayers around the country are looking for more visibility on spending at colleges and universities as tuition and state aid continue to increase.

"The demand for greater accountability and transparency from state governments is not unique to New Jersey," Pokrass said. "It's not something that's going to go away, but it's not anything anybody should fear."

Middle States is the accreditation body for 52 colleges and universities in New Jersey, and in addition to making sure governance and academic standards are met, Middle States also reviews how revenue is allocated throughout the schools.

But for some state officials, reporting to the accreditation bodies is not enough transparency to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent efficiently.

Assemblywoman Celeste Riley (D-Salem) is chair of the higher education committee and co-sponsor of a bill introduced earlier this year requiring the state's research institutions, colleges and universities to report additional information to the state. That bill is currently in committee for review.

While schools and accreditation bodies have their own standards, Riley said, the state must have its own set of requirements for seeing where the funding is going.

The bill, authored by Pamela Lampitt (D-Voorhees), focuses on planning and governance of higher education institutions. It would establish a higher education commission under Rochelle Hendricks, higher education commissioner, that would establish financial accountability standards, internal control standards, a senior staff conduct code and several other measures to ensure accountability.

Critics, though, say such a commission would only duplicate existing requirements, and amount to more bureaucracy. Kathleen Waldron, president of William Paterson University, said the rigorous amount of examination and reporting required for schools to remain accredited should be sufficient for maintaining transparent communications.

"I think state legislators do have a responsibility to the citizens — especially at public institutions that receive state support — that they have a responsibility to make sure that the institution is functioning in an efficient manner, and is academically sound," Waldron said. "But I think that if it's too detailed … then universities just spend a lot of time reporting instead of improving upon the results from one or two" regulators.

The Middle States commission has 14 standards of reporting that schools are required to submit to affirm accreditation every five years, as well as a yearly institutional profile that looks at key leadership at the school and audited financial statements.

"It works to ensure the institution is in sound financial conditions," Pokrass said. "The commission wants to see that there is a sound financial plan, that there are reliable sources of revenue — whether they be state, county, federal, research grants, private-sector fundraising or investments."

"Each institution has an independent board of trustees of honorable citizens that volunteer their time, and they have a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens of the state, the taxpayers, the students and to themselves to make sure the institution is being managed in an appropriate way," Waldron said, adding the William Paterson board consists of members of government, health care and industry.

State Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union), who sits on the Senate's higher education committee, said because of the economic times, keeping tuition affordable is one of the biggest issues the state needs to consider.

"We have a responsibility on our side to make sure" that to the extent there's a cost to going to college, that it is as minimal as can be, Kean said. Keeping school funding transparent, he said, is part of that effort.

The schools themselves also are looking to advocate for tuition transparency, but by going through nationally standardized outside organizations, not government.

Waldron said William Paterson is involved with the Voluntary System of Accountability, a group with a standardized way of reporting true costs of tuition and operations "so when parents and students are thinking about selecting a college, (they) are comparing apples to apples, and not apples to oranges.

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