Fighting for funding: Why community colleges feel they are $20M short

Schools were stunned to learn last year’s bump for operating costs was not in Murphy’s proposed budget for FY2025

Tony Iacono, the forward-thinking president of the County College of Morris, knows what businesses in his county need from his school: Highly skilled students who are properly trained for the workforce of today — and tomorrow.

“The CEOs in the health care sector are constantly asking me: Can you produce more students, and can you produce them faster?” he said. “It’s the same with manufacturing companies and technology companies.

“Businesses need our students — and we’re happy to provide them.”

CCM President Tony Iacono. (File photo)
Tony Iacono. (File photos)

Whether CCM and the state’s 17 other community colleges will continue to be able to do so at the same rate remains to be seen.

Community college leaders around the state were stunned last week when they learned their allocation in Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2025 — $149 million — was $20 million less than they ultimately received in 2024.

To be fair, as an administration official points out, the amount in the original budget proposal last year was the same $149 million — and then, an extra $20 million was added during negotiations to help pay for rising operational costs, including health care premiums.

The governor has said he looks forward to the negotiating process on this and so many other items.

But community college officials, some of whom testified before a state Senate committee on Monday, said they were caught by surprise by the number — and are obviously concerned about what would happen if the additional $20 million is not again made available.

Aaron Fichtner.

Aaron Fichtner, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, sure is.

“Last year, we were obviously hugely appreciative that the Legislature stepped up,” he said. “But we were shocked and surprised that the governor proposed to take that $20 million away. This was for operating expenses; we didn’t view it as a one-time add.”

Fichtner said he hates to even think about how schools would make up the lost income, should it not come at all. He figures it will be a 12% cut for each school.

“The last thing we’d want to do is to balance the budgets on the back of our students and our families in New Jersey,” he said.

Among other reasons: The community colleges already do.

When New Jersey’s community colleges were created — the first, in Union County, started in 1933 — it was done under the idea that the state would pay a third, the county would pay a third and students would pay a third.

It’s never added up to that.

Today, even with numerous programs that have allowed some students to attend community colleges tuition-free — which the governor often touts — the students who do pay tuition are responsible for more than 50% of the operating costs.

“We can’t ask them to pay more,” Fichtner said.

Here’s the scary thing: The ask of the community colleges is not extraordinary or unreasonable, Fitchner said.  In fact, he said, the funding for New Jersey community college typically ranks among the five lowest states in the country.

Then, there’s this: The current funding allocation is less than the community colleges were given before the economic crisis of 2008 dramatically cut their spending.

That’s not a good look for a state that spends so much on K-12 education — and then wonders why so many students leave the state for higher ed.

“We need to address our funding long-term,” Fichtner said.

The good news: There appears to be a warm reception from the Legislature.

“I’ve had nothing but positive conversations with the leadership,” Fichtner said.

The business community figures to be watching. It has a stake in this, too.

“Community colleges are no longer just past-through places for students on the way to a four-year school,” he said. “A lot of our programs now are for older adults.

“Let’s say you’re 28 or you’re 35, and you’ve worked at a low-level job, and you want to upskill — there are programs that are available to you. We’re very supportive of that. And the governor did a wonderful thing in championing that.”

And for those who can go tuition-free, all the better, Fichtner said.

But, there are bills to pay, too.

“Our colleges need operating aid to keep the lights on, pay staff, to do all the things that we do,” he said. “You can’t run our colleges solely on tuition, that’s not fair to anybody. That’s not the way our model is structured.”