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Phil Murphy gesticulates in front of a microphone.

New Jersey governor Phil Murphy proposed a 12 percent cut to community college funding.

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Stringer/Getty Images North America

New Jersey community college leaders are pushing back against a possible 12 percent state funding cut in Governor Phil Murphy’s proposed budget.

Last year, the state’s 18 community colleges received an additional $20 million to offset rising employee healthcare costs, a sum they now risk losing if the current version of the proposed fiscal 2024–25 budget passes.

Murphy told WHYY News that he’s merely proposing the same level of funding for community colleges as he did last year, before state lawmakers allotted the additional funds. He reiterated his admiration and support for the institutions.

“They’re game changers for individuals and they are hugely important for economic development,” he said.

Community college leaders have been warning state lawmakers that the funding reduction would harm their institutions and students and have negative downstream effects on the state economy. But they’re hopeful the governor and legislators will ultimately include the $20 million in the final budget due at the end of June.

Aaron Fichtner, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, said colleges used the added $20 million they received last year to ramp up student services and keep tuition low. He doesn’t want to see that progress reversed.

“I think every college would have to wrestle with making some hard decisions about what to do if the 12 percent decrease goes through, including tuition increases, dipping into reserves, cutting programs, cutting services to students,” he said.

He noted that these community colleges are already modestly funded. New Jersey ranked 46th among the 47 states that have community colleges in terms of state support per full-time student, according to an estimate from the council.

Fichtner is “cautiously optimistic,” however, that the reduction won’t happen. He described Murphy as “an incredible supporter” of community colleges and praised the governor for championing the state’s Community College Opportunity Grant, which offers free or reduced community college tuition to income-eligible students.

Anthony Iacono, president of County College of Morris, expressed similar hopefulness. He believes state legislators have the best interest of higher ed at heart and he’s found both Republicans and Democrats to be receptive to college presidents’ concerns.

“But obviously that’s a lot of money, and if we did not receive that, then we’d be in a position of looking at, where do we tighten our belt? How do we do this? It could possibly mean a tuition increase,” he said.

Iacono emphasized that if community colleges have to raise tuition or provide fewer supports, students may choose not to continue on at a four-year university after they graduate, which could be “very damaging” to New Jersey university enrollment rates. He also worries about the economic impact on the state, which already has labor shortages, if students decide not to go to college altogether or go to cheaper colleges, or do online programs at colleges based out-of-state.

He noted that several major hospital systems are headquartered in Morris County, where his college is located, and that the region is a manufacturing and pharmaceuticals hub.

“We want these individuals to stay here,” he said of graduates of New Jersey community colleges. “These are really bright, talented people. We want them to get the skill set they need. And we want them to have really productive, rewarding careers right here in New Jersey.”

Brian K. Bridges, the state’s Secretary of Higher Education, said in a state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing last month that “the fact that revenues aren’t where they’ve been has required cuts across all sectors, not just in higher education but across the state.”

“We did not want to make this cut,” he told the state lawmakers and college administrators present. “This is difficult, we know, for the institutions as costs have increased across the board for them.”

He noted that programs such as the state’s Community College Opportunity Grant help keep community college tuition costs affordable for students in need.

He said the governor and his administration “look forward to working with you to implement whatever decision the legislature chooses to follow.”

New Jersey community colleges aren’t the only ones faced with possible cuts. Maryland governor Wes Moore proposed a state budget that could slash community colleges’ funding by $22 million, to college leaders’ dismay. Louisiana public higher ed institutions, including community and technical colleges, might face a $250 million cut if a state tax sunsets this year, according to The Times-Picayune.

Community colleges in some other states have fared better. California, though faced with a budget deficit, appears to have staved off a cut to community college funding by planning to borrow part of the money needed from the state’s General Fund, though the University of California and California State University systems face proposed cuts. The final budget deal is expected to be reached by California governor Gavin Newsom and state legislators as early as next week, EdSource reported. Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro proposed a 15 percent increase for community colleges and the state’s public university system as part of his larger budget proposal in February.

Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, said a number of states with budget cycles in 2024 are “struggling to fund higher education this year.”

The days of state surpluses, partly due to federal pandemic relief funds, seem to be “mostly behind us at this point,” he said. “… There’s certainly clouds on the horizon with funding for higher education in a way that it hasn’t been in recent years due to the federal support.”

Fichtner, of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, said he understands it’s a “lean year” and the state budget has to be tighter than last year.

“But if we’re really going to create a prosperous, equitable New Jersey, this is one of the best investments that you can make to make sure that happens,” he said.

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