Some members of the Assembly Budget Committee are concerned that college in New Jersey is too expensive and graduation rates are too low.

(William Thomas Cain, Getty Images)

Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks told the committee on Wednesday that her office is a strong advocate for New Jersey's colleges and universities. At least two members of the panel were not convinced.

"New Jersey leads the nation in the amount of student aid per grant recipient," Hendricks said. "This year the governor proposes a $14 million increase in TAG (Tuition Assistance Grant) aid. Overall, the governor's budget provides $159 million in additional aid to our colleges and universities."

Earlier this year, Assemblyman Joe Cryan (D-Union) announced he is co-sponsoring a sweeping package of higher education reform bills aimed at making colleges less expensive and more accountable.

"Is it a common factor, something that you and I can agree on, that there are tens of thousands of students that have been though this system that leave school with debt and no degree?" Cryan asked.

"Absolutely," Hendricks responded.

Upon further questioning by Cryan, Hendricks said graduation rates are now primarily calculated on a six-year projection. She said her office has no veto power over college boards' minutes and no control over how they spend money. Hendricks said the amount of debt colleges and universities have taken on is a concern, but her office cannot tell schools they can't borrow money. She admitted her office has no master capital plan and no master funding plan, but said it is critical to look at both.

"The reality is, we are saddling and have saddled a generation with debt with little opportunity to get out of that debt," Cryan said. "It's very frustrating to not have a focus on graduation and completion where it needs to be."

According to Hendricks, making college more affordable and improving graduation rates are priorities for her.

During the hearing, the chairman of the committee, Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) openly wondered if the state should be spending money on the Office of the Higher Education Secretary when New Jersey is facing an $807 million shortfall in the current budget year.

"I don't understand how the state can afford for a role that has no concrete value," Schaer said. "If there's no statutory authority, no ability to effect change and no veritable oversight ability, what are we spending $1.2 million on?"