More than a dozen presidents of universities and colleges across the state told state Assembly members Wednesday that planned funding cuts would crush the huge demand among New Jersey families for affordable higher education.

Herman J. Saatkamp Jr., president of Richard Stockton College, called the plan for consistent student funding "our promise to the future."

"In New Jersey, we are not keeping our promises," he said, as lawmakers from the Assembly Budget Committee nodded in agreement.

As Gov. Chris Christie proposes what lawmakers say amounts to a $173 million budget cut next year to higher education, teachers said that would bring funding back to 1995 levels and would mean reducing tuition aid grant funds by $11 million.

Presidents predicted a series of wide-ranging effects.

Community college leaders said they would be unable to meet the rising demand for affordable in-state college, which Larry Nespoli, of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, said had grown in places by more than 50 percent in a decade.

Staffing at many colleges would decline, meaning "lost opportunities" for retaining talented staff, Rutgers University President Richard McCormick said.

And R. Barbara Gitenstein, president of The College of New Jersey, said a plan to enforce a 4 percent cap on tuition took away schools' autonomy - and would cause their bond ratings to decline.

Christie's plan also threatens to remake the New Jersey educational landscape by merging one college, Thomas Edison, with Rutgers.

The hearing marks the start of a deeper look at budget cuts, which across departments aims to fill a $10 billion budget deficit.

But several lawmakers noted that state funding for higher education has historically been lean compared with other departments.

"It's a sad fact," said Paul Shelly, spokesman for the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities.

He noted that in a study by the State Higher Education Executive Officers, New Jersey has been ranked fourth-worst among in terms of growth in state funding amount per student. According to last year's numbers, he said, "We were one of the few that actually went down."

Saatkamp said Stockton faces a 15.7 percent appropriations reduction under Christie's plan.

At the same time, he noted the school received 13,000 applications for financial aid this year, an increase from 10,000 last year.

"The demand is there," he said.

Meanwhile, one major source of money has simply dried up: Federal stimulus funds worth $17 million were applied to last year's ledger but will not be replaced. According to David Wolfe, a Republican assemblyman who represents part of Ocean County and who attempted to explain his support for the budget, those funds should not have been "spent all at once, in one year."

More fundamental would be the planned merger of Thomas Edison College with Rutgers, a plan Thomas Edison President George A. Pruitt said he heard about only at 9 a.m. on the day of Christie's March budget address.

Pruitt said the college caters mainly to nontraditional students, including adult learners and military members between active duty.

McCormick said the state's proposed reductions cap a 20-year period when students' personal contribution for college rose from 30 percent to 66 percent.

But he and Saatkamp both spoke in opposition of Christie's proposed 4 percent cap on tuition increases, an initiative that has won some early support from students and parents.

While colleges can make their tuition flexible, McCormick said that also translates into "high tuition, high aid."

"Don't cut off our air-hose," he said.

As the hearings went on, Nespoli said county college representatives were discussing a possible compromise that would keep in place a program for high-achieving high schoolers to attend community college.

The scholarship program, NJ STARS, helps 4,000 students a year, he said.

While Christie plans to provide funds only for existing participants, Nespoli is hopeful of a compromise: "I think that if we can find a way to live within the governor's stated budget total, we might find a way to fund another class," he said.

Planned reductions might not show in education quality immediately, Saatkamp said, but he asked lawmakers to think a decade ahead.

"In the next 10 years, you'll see this incredible..." he said, making a dive motion with his right hand.

Budget hearings continue today in Trenton, where lawmakers will study state Department of Human Services, including Medicare programs, and Labor and Workforce Development.

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