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There’s a $20 million budget cut question hanging over the heads of New Jersey community colleges. 

The potential impacts of it were answered during a Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing this week – and none of them were good.  

“It will force colleges to make difficult and disastrous decisions, including possibly raising tuition and cutting services and programs,” said New Jersey Council of County Colleges President Aaron Fichtner. 

And the downstream impacts will potentially hit New Jersey businesses and our way of life in the state, according to many of the speakers asking the budget committee to reject a proposed $20 million cut for the state’s 18 community colleges in Gov. Phil Murphy’s FY25 Budget. 

Anthony Iacono, president of the County College of Morris, warned how increased tuitions would hurt the state’s efforts to address worker shortages in multiple industries. 

“We are, as many manufacturers say, the reason they’re about to stay in and around Morris County,” Iacono said. “We’re that pipeline.  

“More recently, one of our hospital executives called and said, ‘We’re going to need over 2,000 nurses in the next few years – can you do it?  

“My answer was, yes, and three days later I found out that we’re potentially facing a $20 million cut. (Now) my answer would be no.” 

BUDGET BY THE BOOKS 

Last year, the FY24 budget increased operating aid to New Jersey community colleges from $149 million to $169 million. 

Fichtner said colleges used that “much needed” $20 million investment “to strengthen services to students, to expand programs to prepare students to pursue family-supporting careers and to ensure that tuition is affordable.” 

The removal of that $20 million in the proposed FY25 budget is a 12% cut, or what Fichtner called “a significant reduction.” 

Senator Declan O’Scanlon (R-13) told representatives from the community colleges that the “cut is a real problem” and said the same about an “almost schizophrenic budget messaging.” 

“It really begs the question of the priorities of this state,” added Senator Michael Testa (R-1). “Here it is in the last few years, we’ve given over $50 million for a potential French museum in Jersey City.  

“What would our community colleges in New Jersey be able to do with that? It’s really perplexing, and that’s the kindest way that I can really put it.” 

Senate Budget Chair Paul Sarlo (D-36) was sympathetic to the concerns of the colleges presidents and students who testified at the hearing, but also warned “we’re entering a new era of budgeting a little bit.” 

“There’s definitely a slowing of the economy, a correction is maybe a better term,” Sarlo said. “But we’ll work with you over the next couple of months.” 

THE COLLEGE TRY 

Other representatives from and supporters of New Jersey community colleges offered the following during their testimonies. 

Essex County College President: Augustine A. Boakye: “It will cause an increase in tuition, as well as a cut in programs and it will push us backwards from previous years.” 

Bergen County Community College President Eric Friedman: “My college is what stands between on the one hand a young person pumping gas, or on the other hand, having a meaningful career, as a pilot, a surgical technician or a teacher. 

“My students come from every possible background. Some are blind. Some have intellectual disabilities. Some come from backgrounds that would make you cry.  

“I can get all of them to graduation. But it takes extra support, advising and supplemental instruction. Cutting our operational funds, meaning cutting a lifeline.” 

Sussex County Community College President Jon Connolly: “(Last year’s $20 million increase) solidified a new program in optics technology. We’re going to be facing a very difficult decision about who is going to lead the program and how it’s all going to function if this particular funding is removed from us.  

“An essential portion of our economic development in Sussex County is essentially being taken away by this cut, and we hope you will give that consideration.” 

Warren County Community College Vice President of Academics Marianne Van Deursen: “(The cut) will hinder our ability to serve our communities of interest by providing students with the opportunity to become prepared.” 

Passaic County Community College President Steven Rose: “I had the opportunity to testify before this committee 20 years ago, and at that point, my college was getting $6.4 million in state aid. If this cut goes through, I will be getting $6.4 million from the state.” 

Bergen County Executive James Tedesco: “Tightening the state’s fiscal belt at the expense of community college students is not right and negatively impacts not only our students but the entire State.  

“If these proposed cuts are passed and tuition rates are increased, students will likely take fewer classes or drop out of college. This could cause a ripple effect leading to a decrease in attendance, which is then passed on as a cost to those students who are able to stay enrolled.  

“The loss of revenue for community colleges punishes students who want to better their lives through higher education.” 

Shemia Superville, Hudson County Community College nursing student: “Today I stand before you, representing students who are disadvantaged, student parents, students like myself who have to pay their own tuition to go to school.  

“My story is not very different from other students at Hudson County Community College. I pay my own tuition and feel like this cut will cause other students to have to pay much more than they should to experience the benefits that community colleges have to offer.  

“The clothes I have on today come from Hudson County Community College’s Career Closet, the food that I eat on most days is from the food pantry that my college has. I feel that this cut would cause so many things to affect students negatively.”