Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 14
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
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Public Higher Education in Trouble: “How Do You Fix a Broken System?”

Ellen Gilbert

“Where are low and middle income students going to find the money to afford higher public education?” asked Richard F. Keevey in his opening remarks at the forum, “How to Fix a Broken System: Funding Public Higher Education and Making It More Productive.” The half-day event was held at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, where Mr. Keevey is director of the Policy Research Institute for the Region.

Speakers addressed a system that elicits “envy at best, resentment at worst,” according to Darryl G. Greer, executive director of the New Jersey Association of State College and Universities, a Trenton-based non-profit organization that is responsible for advancing and advocating the collective policy interests of New Jersey’s nine state colleges and universities (see “There’s a perception that higher education isn’t sharing in the pain of this recession,” he observed.

“How do we fix the existing broken model?” Mr. Keevey asked. His next question, “How do we increase productivity,” elicited laughter from the audience as he observed “I think we all want to know the answer to that one.”

“There are bigger demands and fewer resources, along with changes in public expectations,” said Mr. Greer. He noted that the problem is not “getting students into public colleges and universities,” but “getting them out” by keeping them there long enough to graduate despite increasing fees. According to a report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers, New Jersey has experienced the second largest decline in tuition revenue in the country.

Mr. Keevey highlighted the enormity of the problem, noting that 70 percent of the nation’s undergraduates attend public institutions of higher learning. The economic downturn has resulted in “slashed support” for these students and, as a result, they face increased annual costs of from 10 to 30 percent.

Although “the means for financing are severely broken, New Jersey state colleges are among the most productive in the country,” said Mr. Greer, who suggested that the current “breakdown” in financial support isn’t due to just the current economic crisis, but is the result of “more than two decades” of focusing on “other priorities.”

The proportion of New Jersey state spending on higher public education has decreased from ten to five percent over the last 20 years, he noted. Students now pay 70 percent of their tuition, with the state picking up the balance. New Jersey is “the third worst in the nation for FTE (full-time enrollment) appropriation,” said Mr. Greer, and it’s “not likely to change soon.” He described a “substitution effect,” in which higher tuition simply leads to less public money.


The importance of a “major transformation” to the system was noted by several of the speakers at the program.

“How might restructuring happen?” asked Mr. Greer. He went on to note the importance of “involving all the stakeholders, including, and especially, teaching faculty,” in any effort to introduce change. “It may be difficult, especially if they’re unionized, but we have to do it,” he said, also citing the need for “a market to trade ideas on best practices.”

“No country has really advanced by cutting its support of education,” Mr. Greer observed. “If we don’t pull together, we’re going to be a second-class nation.”

The Lost Decade

“The next decade will be referred to by some as ‘the lost decade.’” said Richard Novak, who spoke about “putting the issues into national context.”

“It’s going to be a very, very difficult time,” said Mr. Novak, who is the senior vice president at the Association of Governing Boards, with primary responsibility to direct the Richard T. Ingram Center for Public Higher Education Trusteeship and Governance, at the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Governing Boards of University and Colleges. The center’s mission is to strengthen the relationship between academic institutions and state governments by enhancing the performance and capacity of public governing boards.

The perception of funding for public higher education as being “discretionary” often results in it being “one of the first things to be cut” when fiscal times are difficult, said Mr. Novak, predicting that “2012 will be the most difficult fiscal year. Shortfalls due to infrastructure obligations like pension funds” compound the problem, he noted. Although “the economy appears to be improving,” he observed, “it may be a decade before states recover.”

Mr. Novak said that his organization hopes to work with the 23 to 30 new state governors who will be elected in the coming election.

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