Community colleges to budget leaders: Don’t forget about us — and please put back $20M you cut

We brag about our education system, so why would we short-change institutions that are educational bridge for so many?

After Bruce and bagels, there is one thing the state always brags about: our education system.

Whether it’s our best-in-nation K-12 system, our near-the-top higher ed institutions or simply our “educated workforce,” there are few things that are touted more than education.

So, why are we cutting $20 million from the funding going to our community colleges — an essential bridge to higher education and workforce development like no other?

County college leaders have been asking this question since Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget was released in February. They are hopeful that the funding will be restored this week, when final negotiations are made.

And, while some will argue that the $149 million appropriate to the county colleges is not a cut — it just doesn’t have the $20 million extra that was appropriated last year — the semantics make no difference to the bottom line.

The county colleges have been slowly pitching their plea for months, through direct testimony, indirect conversations and an old-school approach of more than 50,000 appeal letters from some of the state’s 240,000 county college students to Murphy and members of the Legislature.

Maria Heidkamp, the chief innovation and policy officer for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, is hopeful that the messages are resonating.

“We are confident that Gov. Murphy and the state Legislature have heard the voices of students and college leaders concerning the critical role of community colleges,” she said this week. “Any reduction in funding to community colleges would have significant negative impacts, and we ask the governor and the Legislature to listen to these voices when they finalize the FY 2025 state budget.”

Here’s the deal: Even before the proposed budget cut, New Jersey’s community colleges ranked toward the bottom of the nation for state funding.

In Fiscal Year 2024, New Jersey ranked 46th among the 47 states with community colleges in terms of state support per full-time student. State investment totaled $2,506 per full-time student — 71% below the national median of $8,555. If the proposed budget is enacted, state operating aid to community colleges will be below the level of funding provided in FY 2002 ($149 million vs. $156 million in FY 2002, not adjusted for inflation).

This is something we brag about?

Since the 2025 budget was introduced, community college presidents emphasized the critical role of state funding for the state’s 18 colleges and shared their deep concern about the impact of the proposed $20 million cut in state investment.

President Margaret McMenamin of Union College of Union County described New Jersey’s community colleges as “democracy’s colleges.”

For many students, she said community colleges “are their only opportunity for economic mobility, their only shot at a better life, and their only safety net.”

McMenamin noted that all 18 of the state’s community colleges have made a relentless commitment to student success in recent years — improving outcomes for populations that have historically struggled.

“At UCNJ, we have quintupled our graduation rates pre-COVID and (are) maintaining those increases post-COVID,” she said. “Our Black male graduation rates have similarly quintupled since 2010, from a low of 5% to 32% for the most recent cohort. Scaling up these and other important student success and social justice initiatives will require adequate funding.”

County College of Morris President Anthony Iacono told legislators how the colleges are key to the business community.

“Our community colleges power our state’s economy — educating nurses, teachers, police officers and firefighters, as well as many of the workers in our state’s key industries, including health care,” he said. “We are partnering with employers to meet the needs of New Jersey’s evolving innovation economy, from film production to electric vehicles to aseptic processing and biomanufacturing. We are building bridges to the New Jersey AI Hub initiative, ensuring our community college students, many of whom are low income and students of color, will have equitable access to technologies, mentoring and other resources.”

Several colleges have said that, for the upcoming academic year, they would try to use reserves to cover the budget gap if the $20 million is not restored. If the cut becomes a reality, however, Salem Community College President Michael Gorman said they would seek to curtail nursing program expansion, despite the fact that the programs is “desperately needed at the local level.”

Other programs that would be at risk for the college include the Early College program for high school students, Mechatronics (a cooperative with the local vocational-technical school) and the athletic program, which was just restarted five years ago. Financial assistance that the college offers in specific need situations would be in jeopardy.

For Gorman, it’s simple.

“More than anything, we would be increasing the financial burden upon the most needy in the state,” he said.

It’s not bagels or Bruce, but our community college system is worth bragging about. And, it should be noted, it impacts something else the governor and others like the tout: our diversity.

President Lovell Pugh Bassett of Camden County College emphasized the diversity of students who attend community college.

“Community colleges are the only educational entity that can serve a high-performing high school graduate while serving the student who experienced a trauma that changed their life circumstance at the same time,” she said.

“In any given classroom, you will find a recently divorced adult starting over, a veteran struggling to survive after serving, a recently adjudicated member of society seeking to get his/her life back on track or a 70-year-old grandparent who realized it’s never too late to finish what they started. Our campuses are inundated with students from diverse life experiences, backgrounds and testimonies that make for a uniquely enriching environment. Our students face barriers that were seemingly impossible to navigate and much too complicated for a “typical” institution to serve.

“With great pride I affirm that community colleges are the last hope for many of the students we serve. Community colleges are a lifeline for the most marginalized populations in New Jersey.”