Ciattarelli pitches using state aid as bargaining chip to lower college tuition

EDISON — Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli suggested using state aid for public universities as a bargaining chip to get them to lower tuition, while also arguing that direct aid to students is a Band-Aid for college affordability.

Asked by a Rutgers University student during a candidates forum Wednesday night in Middlesex County how he would help students pay for college, Ciattarelli said that as governor, he would use his “hammer” — state aid to public universities — to negotiate with schools.

“I've got the hammer because the fact of the matter is, right now, we provide about $400 million a year in aid to our public colleges and universities,” he said. “If [colleges] don't work in partnerships with me, I’ll use that hammer.”

According to budget documents, direct state support to New Jersey’s senior public colleges in fiscal year 2022 was more than $800 million.

In a statement Thursday clarifying Ciattarelli’s comments, a spokesperson for the campaign said the former assemblymember “is proposing holding public colleges and universities accountable for how they spend taxpayer dollars and require that they justify their spending.“

Ciattarelli, who has proposed cutting tuition by $5,000 to $10,000 at public universities, pushed back on providing more direct subsidies to students — such as Pell grants, which are provided by the federal government — arguing that approach masks a deeper problem.

“If I continue to provide more Pell grants and more ways for the student to pay in partnership with local, state and federal government, that means the cost of education still staying high,” Ciattarelli said during Wednesday’s event at the Raritan Valley Community Orthodox Association in Edison. “[Colleges are] still getting paid. They’re just being paid in a different way. I think that's wrong.”

Gov. Phil Murphy has made free tuition a cornerstone of his governorship with two programs: the Community College Opportunity Grant program and the Garden State Guarantee, which together cover tuition for two years at community college and two years at four-year schools for students under a certain family income threshold.

Ciattarelli did not specifically mention those programs.

Though the most recent state budget allocated some $77 million for the programs, the overall tuition sticker price at public universities in New Jersey has increased since Murphy took office, according to data from the state Secretary of Higher Education.

The Murphy campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

For their part, college leaders have said increases in tuition and fees are the result of deep cuts in state aid in recent years combined with rising operational costs and salaries.

The governor or Legislature does not directly control the cost of tuition, fees or room and board, a responsibility given to a university’s administration and governing board. Boards at public universities are made up of members appointed by the governor with the consent of the state Senate and members elected by the school’s board of trustees.

Utilizing remote learning, which Ciattarelli said was “less expensive,” was another way he said could help college students.

“I think the cost of college has really gotten kind of silly,” he said. “And it's a real exploitation of students."