It was a long day of testimony Thursday in Trenton as the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee heard from presidents and officials of the state's colleges and universities.

Assembly Chambers at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)

State Sen. Kevin O'Toole, R-Essex made an impassioned plea to make the issue of college affordability for New Jersey families a priority.

"This is the most important thing we can do is give our kids a quality education, and make sure they maintain some presence here as taxpayers and contribute to our economy and our business," he said.

O'Toole said despite the efforts of all sides, New Jersey is still coming up short in this area as the cost to attend state schools continue to rise and the student "brain drain" keeps impacting the Garden State.

"We are not doing enough when we hear University of Delaware is stealing most of our students," he said.

A recent report showed that more than 34,000 students left New Jersey to attend college elsewhere, leaving behind about 5,000 to enroll in state schools.

A major issue is the cost of higher education here, which averages $13,303 a year, the fourth-highest figure in the nation.

O'Toole said he does not have the solution, but wants a comprehensive discussion on the issue and how to find a sustained funding source. He hopes to provide a way to help defray the costs for New Jersey families and keep more students here, while offering colleges more resources to remain competitive.

"We need something more global, more structured, more painful, more stable," O'Toole said.

"If we don't do that, then we have failed as a society."

Gov. Chris Christie's proposed 2017 budget includes an $18 million increase in Tuition Aid Grants, bringing that total to $403.6 million.

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