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New Jersey Council of County Colleges President Aaron Fichtner and the leaders of two of the 18 county colleges his organization represents recently told a special legislative committee that state aid is not keeping up with the institutions’ higher operating costs.

“It is clear by almost any metric that New Jersey invests significantly less in community colleges than almost any other state in the country,” Fichtner said. “State operating aid for community colleges is critical to their survival. However, state operating aid in New Jersey has increased by only $15 million over the past 15 years and remains below FY 2008 levels.

“New Jersey ranks 45th of all states in the level of state support for community college operating aid, well behind New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Maryland—states that we compete with every day for economic activity,” Fichtner said.

Community colleges enroll over 170,000 people each year in credit, non-credit, and workforce development courses at over 70 campuses throughout New Jersey. When the community college system was created in the 1960s, the expectation was that one-third of the funding would come from the state, one-third from the county, and one-third from student tuition.

“However, we are far from this original agreement,” Fichtner said. “Currently, approximately half of the funding for community colleges comes from tuition paid by students, supplemented by state and federal financial aid. The state’s contribution is only 20%.”

As state aid continues to fall behind, inflation puts additional pressure on college operating budgets. This year, a 15% increase in health benefits costs approved by the New Jersey School Employees Health Benefits Plan (SEHBP) Commission will cost county colleges an additional $12 million alone.

The special legislative meeting on March 16 was held to gather testimony from experts on the fiscal stability of New Jersey’s institutions of higher education, including current funding policies and formulas, revenues and operations, mergers and acquisitions, infrastructure needs, and affordability concerns.

The complete testimony by Fichtner, County College of Morris President Anthony Iacono and Atlantic Cape Community College President Barbara Gaba appears below.

“Thank you, Assemblywoman Jasey, Senator Zwicker, and Members of these Committees for convening this important conversation.

New Jersey is at a crossroads. The global, digital, knowledge economy means that a K-12 education isn’t enough. New Jersey’s economy is evolving towards higher value-added and higher education industries. And employers in the key industries that drive our economy, from health care to technology, report difficulty finding workers with the skills they need.

To compete in the rapidly changing global knowledge economy, and to address persistent and troubling inequality in our state, we must help more New Jerseyans earn postsecondary degrees and credentials that will enable them to have family sustaining jobs and ensure our state’s economic future.

Currently, 60% of our state’s adult population has earned a postsecondary credential or degree. We commend the Murphy Administration for committing to the ambitious goal of increasing this percentage to 65% by 2025. To get there, we need to make sure every New Jersey high school student believes they have a clear path to postsecondary education, and that every New Jersey resident who needs or wants to acquire new skills to advance in their careers can do so.

We are in a moment of economic, social, technological, and demographic changes. New Jersey’s Community Colleges believe strongly that to meet the moment, New Jersey needs a strategic, entrepreneurial, and equity-focused vision for public higher education and aligned funding from the state to support that vision. Without a strong vision and robust funding, the efforts at ensuring improved outcomes and accountability will be insufficient.

At a time when other states are making significant investments in public higher education, New Jersey is falling behind. Community Colleges pride themselves on being efficient institutions, used to doing more with less and finding creative solutions to the challenges facing our students and our communities, always balancing the need to provide a high-quality and an affordable education.

When Community Colleges were founded in New Jersey, the expectation was that one-third of the funding for the colleges would come from the state, one-third from the counties, and the final one-third from tuition.

However, we are far from this original agreement. Currently, approximately half of the funding for Community Colleges comes from tuition paid by students, supplemented by state and federal financial aid. The state’s contribution is only 20%.

Community College Opportunity Grant and the Garden State Guarantee are important programs that are expanding access to college for more low-income New Jerseyans. However, New Jersey Community College students receive only 13% of the state’s total investment in financial aid, though we educate over half of public undergraduate students. While financial aid for students is important, it does not take the place of state operational support.

It is clear by almost any metric that New Jersey invests significantly less in Community Colleges than almost any other state in the country. State operating aid for Community Colleges is critical to their survival. However, state operating aid in New Jersey has increased by only $15 million over the past 15 years and remains below FY 2008 levels. New Jersey ranks 45th of all states in the level of state support for community college operating aid, well behind New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Maryland—states that we compete with every day for economic activity.

Increases in institutional support have been shown in national research to contribute to improvements in student success and attainment. This is especially important given that our students are disproportionately from marginalized and low-income backgrounds. New Jersey Community Colleges educate higher shares of Black and Hispanic students than four-year colleges do; 15.6% of our community college students are Black, and 27.9% are Hispanic. And for many adults who face challenges in their lives, such as those who are justice impacted, limited English speakers, student parents, or refugees, we offer a second chance, or a third or fourth chance, but we can only help them succeed if we can offer the robust academic and personal supports they need.

The consequences of inaction and disinvestment in institutional support for Community Colleges are grave. Low levels of operating aid support from the state have forced community colleges to charge significant amounts to students for tuition. At a point in time when every state is competing in the talent war, we are at a serious disadvantage.

While we work aggressively to keep tuition as low as possible, tuition at Community Colleges in New Jersey is well above the cost of tuition in other states. Without state investment, tuition will continue to rise. And colleges will be forced to make difficult decisions about offerings, programs, and the high impact support services students need to be successful.

The costs for Community Colleges continue to rise significantly as state operating aid continues to fall behind the needs of colleges. Inflation has put pressure on all of our higher education institutions. If operating aid for Community Colleges had kept pace with inflation since 2003, it would total more than $280 million instead of the $149 million it is now. Our Community Colleges also face a special challenge this year in the form of a spike in health care costs, up 15% or $12 million.

For years, Community Colleges have been resilient, finding ways to deliver high quality and affordable education opportunity to our students and to meet the needs of our local communities.

We will continue to do so, but this moment is different, and we are proactively leading the charge to change the status quo.

Community Colleges are collaborating in strategic, creative, and unprecedented ways in New Jersey. Through the NJ Council of County Colleges, the 18 Community Colleges work to jointly approve courses for credit, review and approve general education courses, and support each other by sharing promising practices and ideas. We are partnering with each other and with a wide variety of state agencies and departments and other key stakeholders to help high school students learn about careers and enter college ready to succeed, deliver literacy training to adults, reengage adults with some college credit but no degree, expand apprenticeships, serve individuals with intellectual and development disabilities, partner with industry and unions to meet the needs of the economy, and strengthen our use of data to inform decisions.

Knowing that results matter, in 2021, as a group of 18 Community Colleges, we developed an innovative funding allocation formula for state operating aid that reinforces our shared priorities of success, access, and equity. The Community College Funding Formula can now assure state leaders that state operating aid funds will go to those Community Colleges that are expanding access, addressing equity, and committed to student success. Funds are allocated based in part on how many students from underrepresented groups enroll in and complete a community college degree program, how many low-income students enroll in our colleges, how many adult students enroll, and how many students complete a degree or credit certificate.

We are also working together through the New Jersey Pathways to Career Opportunities Initiative with funding in the FY 2022 and FY 2023 state budget. The Pathways Initiative unites industry, labor, and education experts in New Jersey’s fastest-growing industries. We are partnering with the New Jersey Business and Industry Association and more than 1,200 business and education partners. We have established 10 Centers of Workforce Innovation, in fields such as Data Science, Renewable Energy and Manufacturing, that have already built 22 career pathways including high school, college, and workplace training and upskilling, with new curriculum and career awareness strategies that can be shared across all the colleges and with high schools and four-year colleges and universities across the state.

The Pathways Initiative understands that not everyone has a straight path from school to career and that, given evolving skill needs, many will need on and off-ramps to more education and training throughout their careers. It is a new and promising way to help our students and working learners while serving our employer communities. And it is incentivizing new models of collaboration and partnership.

New Jersey Community Colleges are prepared to lead as we embrace a new reality, but this requires a fundamental shift in how we value and resource higher education in our state.

We need three things in New Jersey:

1) A sustained state investment in Community Colleges

New Jersey’s Community Colleges are requesting that the state legislature include funding of $169.1 million in state operating aid for Community Colleges (an increase of $20 million from FY 2023) in the state’s FY 2024 state budget. This is a small but vital first step.

State operating aid is critical to the ability of our Community Colleges to provide high-quality, affordable education to New Jerseyans and to help our students—many from marginalized backgrounds and often the first in their families to attend college—succeed.

We also need to create a sustainable funding process that enables operating aid per annum to at the very minimum keep pace with prices.

2) To truly build a sustainable network of Community Colleges, we must also embrace new thinking and strategies that will directly address equity gaps and increase attainment of postsecondary degrees and credentials.

These include:

    1. a) Ensuring that Community Colleges are the primary deliverer of dual enrollment to high school students, and that these opportunities are available equitably, which is not currently the case.
    2. b) Expanding access to noncredit workforce programs by centering the state’s workforce development programs and services at Community Colleges, providing access to high quality training (including apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships) to unemployed and underemployed individuals and better, more strategically, aligning efforts to build an educated and skilled workforce.
    3. c) Build even strong alignment between Community Colleges and four-year colleges and universities. CCOG and Garden State Guarantee provide an opportunity to commit that more New Jerseyans should proudly start their academic journey at a Community College and have the opportunity to continue on a pathway to a four-year degree and beyond. The landmark “Lampitt Law” has shown promising results for students who begin at Community College and transfer to a four-year college and university, and we look forward to building on this success.
    4. d) Continuing to embrace greater collaboration among our community colleges building on the 10 Centers of Workforce Innovation established through the New Jersey Pathway to Career Opportunities initiative.

3) This discussion cannot end today.

In the coming months, the New Jersey Council of County Colleges will lead a statewide discussion through a series of convenings of how we can all work together to expand economic opportunity, address equity, and build a skilled workforce. We look forward to engaging the entire legislature in this important discussion about the future.

We welcome the opportunity to have this conversation now. Thank you.”