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Chris Christie: cuts now, aid later

Gov. Corzine and the Legislature were poised to enact major cuts to higher ed budget earlier this year, before Pres. Obama and Congress sent down a lifeline. States were forbidden to cut those funds as a condition of receiving federal stimulus money. That spared Rutgers and other state schools from the chopping block for a year, but not before the legislature attached an additional restriction, limiting each school's tuition increases to 3% a year, and correspondingly freezing a state-mandated pay increase for staff.

Well, unless the federal government bails out the states again, Gov-elect Christie and his transition team are already sounding the alarm, starting with a meeting and press conference yesterday in New Brunswick. According to Christie's figures, the state deficit is up from $8 billion to $9.5 billion, and New Jersey will have to make up the shortfall somewhere.

"Other things will feel that brunt more quickly than higher education will, but I can't make a flat-out commitment that it won't be cut," said Christie, who takes office Jan. 19.

Christie was exceedingly vague during his campaign about specific policy proposals, especially after it started to become apparent that many of his fiscal proposals would not fly during an economic downturn. Now, it's actually time to govern, and time for the straight dope. In light of this apparent bad news, he tried to strike a more positive tone, with promises of better days ahead.

Christie said he intends to raise New Jersey's investment in higher education during his first term and stop what he termed the over-reliance on tuition and fees to make up for the lack of state support. Christie referenced former Gov. Tom Kean, who viewed higher education as a dividend-returning investment for the state.

Christie said New Jersey must increase the amount state government spends on higher education for the state college and university system to remain competitive with neighboring states.

Tom Kean was the last New Jersey Governor who was an unequivocal a friend to higher education. Florio and Corzine may have had their hands tied by recession, but that does not change that these budget cuts have been bipartisan policy over nearly the past two decades.

"It is an investment in our economy both in the short term and the long term," Christie said, adding New Jersey ranks in the bottom three out of 50 states for its investment in higher education. "We're going to change it. We're not going to change it overnight."

It's a positive that someone in power is actually talking about those figures now, and actually promising to emphasize the issue, but that will be little comfort until the state economy picks up. In the meantime, additional budget cuts combined with tuition caps means that Rutgers and other state colleges are in for more of the same: all-around cuts, and further increasing enrollment to a system that's already far too overcrowded. That's the elephant in the room here, it goes hand in hand with the tuition issue (which is a very big deal itself), yet is rarely ever discussed.

Rutgers and other institutions are being forced to enroll their way out of the crisis. Students are being housed in a hotel at an office park in Somerset, and the new dorms won't be ready for 18 months. That overcrowding is already wrecking havok on an already-crumbling facilities infrastructure, and it's having a negative impact on both school selectivity/reputation, and the quality of education available. I have always believed, and still do, that it's possible to get an education at Rutgers that's as good as anywhere. At RU, students will have to go the extra mile more than they would at elite private schools, but it is possible. That remains the case, but it's getting harder by the semester, to a point where very dedicated students are reaching their breaking point. This isn't your parents' RU Screw.

If by chance anyone is willing to send me a transcript of the press conference, I would be much obliged.