New Jersey's community colleges want the state to add $10 million to the total aid they typically receive on an annual basis.

The 18 institutions, which serve more than 300,000 residents each year, say their services will be needed more than usual as a result of the coronavirus pandemic — since mid-March, the state has received more than 1.9 million initial claims for unemployment benefits.

"We have a lot of people in New Jersey who are going to need to re-skill and retool to be able to get good jobs," said Aaron Fichtner, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. "Community colleges are central to our ability to build a strong economy and expand economic opportunity to more New Jersey residents."

According to the Council, state operating aid for community colleges in New Jersey has not increased in more than 10 years. The typical amount, $134 million, is a fraction of the actual price to run the schools — close to $1 billion annually. Over the past nine months, because of the health crisis, operating aid was reduced by $34 million.

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Fichtner said the Council's call for an additional $10 million in aid comes as Gov. Phil Murphy works to put together a budget for Fiscal Year 2022. Murphy's proposal will be announced in the winter and a final budget is supposed to be signed before July 1.

"$10 million on a state contribution is not a huge amount of money, but it is a lot of money to our colleges," Fichtner said.

Increased investment in community colleges, the Council said, will increase the number of people who earn degrees or credentials, help ensure New Jersey has the most skilled workforce in the country, and address the systemic racial injustice and inequality on a local and state level.

"The state operating aid allows the colleges to keep tuition reasonable and affordable," Fichtner added.

Average tuition and fees for a community college in New Jersey averaged $7,393 in 2019-20, according to the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education. In the same academic year, senior public institutions carried an average total cost of $13,760.

Murphy's office did not respond to a request for comment.

The state Senate is scheduled to vote Monday on legislation that would permanently establish the Community College Opportunity Grant program, which currently allows by pilot program certain students to attend tuition-free if they have a total household adjusted income of $65,000 or less. The bill was approved by the full Assembly in November.

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