When Gov. Phil Murphy said last week he’d put a “ring fence” around public education to protect against spending cuts, he included a significant qualifier: pre-K through 12.

Community colleges are in line for a different experience. Between a de-appropriation of nearly $10 million in the spring, a reduction in the current temporary three-month budget and then a planned cut in the upcoming nine-month budget, they’re in line for nearly $52 million in cuts.

This is no time to be cutting funding for higher education, said Aaron Fichtner, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.

“We’re facing record unemployment. We’re facing a reckoning with racial and systemic injustices in our state. We’re facing a pandemic,” Fitchner said. “And we need to be making investments in our community colleges, not disinvesting.”

Community colleges often see increased demand during a recession, as people seek new job skills and career paths. Unemployment hit a record high in June, 16.8%, and was at 13.8%, still far above the past record.

Their student enrollment is already churning. Fichtner said some students have lost jobs they had been using to pay their tuition. Meanwhile, others are opting to enroll there rather than a four-year college where they cannot live on campus.

Amid that, county colleges in New Jersey face a 31% cut in state operating support in the coming fiscal year.

Between the current three-month budget, spanning July to September, and the proposed nine-month budget, running through next June, state operating support for community colleges drops from $134 million to $92 million.

Fichtner said state funding already accounts for a smaller share of community college funding than it should historically, around 20%, but that it’s still critically important.

“The colleges will have to make tough decisions about how to deal with a reduction, if the reductions go through,” Fichtner said. “And that would include cutting services, raising tuition, other things that they may have to do just to try to make the budget work.”

“You can’t reduce funding for community colleges by $25 million and not expect that there will be some significant impact on the colleges,” he said.

Community colleges received more than $89 million in federal money through the CARES Act and will receive another $22.5 million in federal Coronavirus Relief Fund money through the state. But Fichtner said most of that is restricted in ways that it can’t replace the cuts in state operating aid.

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