Voters will decide in November whether they are willing to pay $750 million for construction projects at the state’s public and private colleges.
Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday signed into law a bill authorizing the first bond referendum for higher education in almost 25 years.
Sponsors of the Building Our Future Bond Act, which had broad bipartisan support, said the funds would help keep the state’s colleges competitive, make sure they have room for all qualified New Jersey students and help control tuition costs.
“The state has deferred investment in its system of higher education long enough,” said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, Passaic, a primary sponsor of the bill. “This is an investment not just of buildings, but in the students who will be attending and graduating from these institutions.”
The last state bond for higher education was in 1988. The colleges have since been funding their own construction projects, which has led to the facilities fees paid annually by students.
An analysis by The Press of Atlantic City in 2009 found the state’s public four-year colleges have borrowed almost $4 billion for construction, costing them more than $250 million a year in debt service payments, at least partially funded by student fees. Students now pay as much as $1,000 a year at some colleges to help pay that debt.
College officials have estimated they still need about $2 billion to meet all needs, but are happy with the $750 million proposal.
Paul Shelly, spokesman for the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, said if voters approve the bond it would create jobs and provide opportunity for New Jersey students.
New Jersey sends more students out of state to college than any other state, and officials want to reverse what is called the “brain drain.”
“Funding to help our public colleges and universities provide affordable and accessible facilities for New Jersey students is critical,” Stockton President Herman J. Saatkamp Jr. said. “For too long we have not had enough space to provide for many of the 30,000-plus students who end up leaving New Jersey for their higher education. ”
He said Stockton could use funds for additional academic buildings near the new science center currently under construction. A new Health Sciences Campus would include a research and laboratory building, and a clinical practice building.
Atlantic Cape Community College President Peter Mora said funds could help the school meet master plan goals and undertake needed maintenance projects. Among the projects under consideration are a new student services center and reconfiguring the loop road that runs through the Mays Landing campus.
Under the law, the funds would be split among the colleges, with $300 million for public research universities (Rutgers, New Jersey Institute of Technology and possibly Rowan under the new restructuring plan); $247.5 million for the other nine state colleges and universities; $150 million for the 19 county colleges; and $52.5 million for private colleges. Colleges that receive funds would have to fund 25 percent of their projects.
The governor signed another bill Wednesday allowing more public/private partnerships for college construction projects, which could also help colleges fund facilities such as student housing.
Rowan University spokesman Joe Cardona said there are projects there that have been delayed for years, such as a $5 million parking lot repaving and a $2.5 million landscaping and maintenance project.
“There’s been a lot of deferred maintenance over the past few years,” he said. “This money would be making up for the state not funding capital projects for decades.”
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