This Op-Ed was published May 12, 2022 on NJ.com.
New Jersey wears its egalitarian spirit on her sleeve. No royalty here. Each of us deserves our own shot at success. So as the new president at Montclair State University, I was shocked that the unequal treatment of New Jersey’s college students is shrugged off like traffic on the GWB, just an unavoidable fact of life.
The complex structure of New Jersey’s state investment in college students obscures this surprising reality, but the picture is clear if you pull it apart. Start with the core appropriation to each of the Garden State’s 11 public universities.
A student’s choice of school may mean that the state invests more than $7,000 per student annually in her school or less than $3,000! Some of this disparity can be explained by differences in institutional profile but that only gets you so far.
Consider my students at Montclair State University who receive one of the lowest state investments, just $3,047 per student each year in state funding. That’s 30% below the average per student at the other 10 public universities — and a staggering 50% less than the per-student appropriation at the three other public research universities.
Indeed, the inequities are even greater if you include a confusing but critical component of state investment in higher education: coverage of health care and pensions for some university employees. The number covered varies by institution. It is set by the legislature, not guided by enrollment or any other formula.
Just do the math to see how this plays out. At the average NJ research university, it takes seven students to “earn” a single state-supported faculty or staff position. At Montclair, it takes 14 students! Are Montclair students worth only half the investment of students who attend other schools?
Now funding is not destiny. Grit and hard work have a lot to do with success. I am proud that Montclair State University students perform as well as or better than students at other senior public universities.
Graduation rates are similar overall and higher for Hispanic and African American students. They are supported by a Montclair faculty and staff that operate at an incredible level of efficiency – 20% fewer employees per student than the average – with a cost per degree lower than all but one in-person, four-year state institution.
We are a recognized leader in social mobility and our students defy expectations. Indeed, Montclair students outpace the graduation rates predicted by their family income by the largest margin in the nation. And they do so while achieving excellence in key fields including education, business, science, communications, health and the arts.
We make this happen by running a lean, mission-focused institution made up of faculty and staff who are passionately dedicated to student success.
This is what we owe our students and the people of New Jersey, our largest investor, and we should be held accountable for these results.
Now there is a highly uncomfortable reality about the disparity in funding that must be addressed. Each institution has a different demographic profile. One strength of Montclair is the fantastic diversity of our majority-minority student population. Here’s the thing though. When you look at the state’s investment per student through the lens of racial and economic equity, it is obvious that New Jersey invests less in minority and low-income students. Let me be clear. I am not saying the intent is discriminatory but it is the effect nonetheless.
This is simply the result of students flocking to Montclair and other growing institutions, drawn to high-quality programs and stellar results in terms of graduation and employment. These hard-working minority students are being shortchanged as a result of their shrewd focus on outcomes. It’s not right, and I must call out this unfair and counterproductive policy because these are not abstract statistics to me. They represent real people.
Like Hunter, a hard-working student from Elizabeth who is the first in his family to pursue a college degree. Or Sienna, a senior from East Orange, who launched her own line of hair-care products for women of color while attending Montclair full-time.
My students speak passionately about their dreams, about the meaning of a degree for their families, and about their plans to give back to their communities. They are not just working hard in their classes but holding down jobs and taking care of families. It isn’t easy, and I am so proud of them.
The people of New Jersey have no interest in continuing the indefensible disparities that are obscured by the politics of budget-making. They see that all of Montclair’s 21,000 students — and underfunded students at other institutions — offer the same fantastic return on public investment. That is, after all, the premise of enlightened, important policies like the Garden State Guarantee.
Our legislators have the power to start righting this wrong in the current budget. My colleagues at six public universities have come together to propose a common-sense starting point: set a floor of $3,750 annual investment per student. That would still allow for significant variation reflecting institutional differences. It will not erase all of the inequities, but it gets the ball rolling. Now is the time to bring an equity lens to our higher education funding system. Let’s get this done. Our students deserve no less.
Jonathan G S Koppell