A higher education bond package on the November ballot has sparked controversy throughout New Jersey. If passed, the referendum, known as the “Building our Future Bond Act,” authorizes the State of New Jersey and the state’s colleges to borrow $750 million to make capital improvements at higher education institutions throughout the state.
When Gov. Chris Christie signed the bill in early August it was part of a plan to overhaul three of the state’s public universities.
Rutgers took over much of the operations of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey while Rowan University took over the troubled medical school’s college of osteopathic medicine and, in doing so, was raised to research university status.
The elevation of Rowan to research university status was widely viewed as a way to repay South Jersey power broker George Norcross for helping Christie get the votes needed to reform the state’s pension and employee benefits program. It also meant that, if the bond measure passes, the school gains access to a $300 million fund dedicated solely for the state’s research universities.
Whether the initiative passes or not is still up for debate. Polling shows that 67% of New Jersey voters are unaware that the bond package is on the ballot. Of the one-third of voters that are aware of the referendum, 62% support it.
Columnists and consumers have taken to editorial pages across the Garden State to both denounce and defend the bond measure. Much of the controversy stems from the amount of debt the State of New Jersey already has, $258 billion, and how the state and the colleges will repay the bonds.
The text of the bill requires that the State of New Jersey raise taxes to repay its portion of the funds. While tuition, on average, is rising at New Jersey colleges faster than the rate of inflation, the schools are expected to raise tuition to repay their share.
Expected tuition and tax increases have led New Jersey conservatives to launch a campaign against the bond package and call for colleges and universities to look for ways to do more with less. Among the solutions being suggested by groups like Save Jersey and Conservative New Jersey have been cuts to administrative salaries and shifting faculty focus away from research and towards teaching.
One of the ways to cut costs that is being looked at by Rutgers and other universities is an expansion of online education. Currently Rutgers, like many colleges in New Jersey, offers some undergraduate classes online the university’s focus is still on the residential experience.
Richard Novak, the associate vice president for continuing studies and distance learning at Rutgers, said in an interview with the Suburban newspaper of Middlesex County, that the university is examining options for expanding the school’s digital footprint. According to Novak, one of the options being explored by the school is hybrid courses. The university is also exploring developing course content for mobile and tablet devices.
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