Scouring budget plan for areas to cut, N.J. lawmakers target education office

 New Jersey higher education officials testify before the Assembly Budget Committee (Phil Gregory/WHYY)

New Jersey higher education officials testify before the Assembly Budget Committee (Phil Gregory/WHYY)

As New Jersey lawmakers look for ways to cut spending to deal with a revenue shortfall, they’re questioning the need for the state’s Office of the Secretary of Higher Education and her staff.

During budget hearings in Trenton Wednesday, Assemblyman Gary Schaer asked whether an office with only an advisory role justifies $1.2 million in administrative costs.

“If there’s no ability to effect change, if there’s no audit ability, if there’s no veritable oversight ability, then what exactly are we spending the $1.2 million on?” said Schaer, D-Passaic, who chairs the Assembly budget committee.

The funding allows her office to propose initiatives to improve the state’s higher education system, answered Higher Education Secretary Rochelle Hendricks.

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“If, in fact, this body and others feel that our operation needs to have a higher role in term of regulatory authority, play a key role in interventions, that is something we’d consider,” she said.

Budget committee members also said they are concerned that thousands of students are leaving New Jersey colleges without getting a degree and still having to pay off high amounts of debt because of increasing tuition costs.

And Assemblyman Joe Cryan questioned Hendricks about whether her office has any oversight on projects colleges are doing with money from a $750 million bond act that voters approved.

“Do you, or don’t you, have the wherewithal to go in and say this project is overrun, we need to stop it, this is good or bad, do you have any sort of power of that?” he said.

“We believe so,” Hendricks replied. “We believe so.”

“You do? Have you done that in any project up to date?” Cryan countered.

“We haven’t had to do that at this point in time,” Hendricks said. “We’re busy trying to get the funds out the door.”

She said ensuring student success will be her central point for her office in the next few years

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