TRENTON - Gov. Christie wants to cap tuition and fee increases at the state's four-year public colleges and universities at 4 percent, after proposing to cut the schools' state aid by nearly 18 percent.

The cap proposal was buried in budget language released this week by the administration. Though Christie has no formal power to set tuition or fees, schools that exceed the cap would have their state funds reduced by an amount equal to two times what they collect in additional tuition.

The withheld funds would be distributed among schools that abided by the cap, according to the proposal.

Higher education leaders were stunned to learn of the plan. While colleges typically do not determine their rates until later in the year, many plan tuition increases to help offset budget cuts, school officials said.

If the budget proposed by Christie is adopted, state funding to higher education will have been cut in seven of the last 10 years, according to the officials.

Darryl Greer, chief executive officer of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, which represents nine institutions, said the effect of Christie's budget would be significant.

"What you'll see is probably larger class sizes, fewer faculty hires, probably fewer class offerings, more people trying to get into classes and complete programs but fewer resources to do that," Greer said. "You'll see cutbacks in services and hours, cutbacks on buying technology, renovating facilities."

An "artificial" tuition cap following significant reductions in state funding is not appropriate, Rutgers University said in a statement.

"In this environment, restraints on tuition revenues can deprive institutions of the funds necessary to invest in academic programs that provide a quality education to our students," according to the statement.

Tuition and fees for state residents attending Rutgers-New Brunswick total $11,886 this academic year, an increase of about 3 percent over 2008-09. The year before, tuition and fees increased about 8.5 percent.

The schools in the Association of State Colleges and Universities raised their tuition and fees an average of 4 percent last year and 6 percent the year before.

As with all the budget cuts, "these are not what we desire to do or what we choose to do. It's what we were left to deal with," said Michael Drewniak, Christie's spokesman.

Christie would cut $173 million from higher education funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1, after trimming $62 million shortly after taking office. The proposed budget must be approved by the Legislature.

While Christie has said that higher education is a priority, he is faced with closing an estimated budget gap of about $11 billion in a budget of about $29 billion. He has pledged not to increase taxes.

Several college presidents said that while the Legislature has effectively placed limits on tuition increases in the past, this was the first time they could recall a governor calling for a cap. In most years, they said, tuition hikes have been below the cap.

Donald Farish, president of Rowan University, said he was surprised to learn of the planned measure.

"I believe Christie when he says he wants to support higher education, but we wish we could have had a dialogue with him," Farish said. "When you write it down in your own budget without discussing it with us, it feels like the local control that we had is now gone."

Farish said the tuition increase limitation could make it more difficult and expensive to borrow money for capital projects, because lenders may feel colleges cannot repay debt.

While many students and parents likely support a curb on tuition hikes, Thomas Little, a junior at the College of New Jersey in Ewing, said temporary caps do not address the root problems of excess spending and underfunding.

"I'm not against [a cap], I'm just worried about the long-term cost of using that kind of action," Little said. At his college, he said, a cap several years ago "worked for a while, but that didn't really stop the inevitable rise in tuition and fees."

Herman J. Saatkamp Jr., president of Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, said that his institution would be left with a $5.2 million budget gap to close "in an era of significantly rising fixed costs, many of which are not under our control."

"In real dollars, we will be receiving the lowest levels of state funding since the 1990s, at a time when our enrollment and region are growing," Saatkamp said.

"Although tuition and fee caps may, on the surface, appear to help students and families, they ultimately compromise Stockton's ability to provide a high-quality, affordable and accessible education."

When questioned by a college official about reopening employee contracts, the governor said he was open to attempts to get salary concessions, Drewniak said.

"If there's a way to lessen the impact of budget cuts, we're certainly interested in its viability," Drewniak said.

Nicholas Yovnello, statewide president of the union that represents 8,500 faculty members at nine public colleges and universities, said that his membership had accepted concessions in recent years, including contributing 1.5 percent of their salaries to health-care costs, agreeing to furlough days, and deferring a 3.5 percent salary increase.

"How many times are you going to ask the same people to keep giving?" Yovnello said.

Farish said his larger concern was not how to close Rowan's budget shortfall, but "the complete absence of dialogue about the long-term implications of the retreat [from] historic commitments that states make to higher education."

"If the state is saying, 'Our plan is to get out of the business of higher education altogether,' OK, let's talk about that," Farish said.

The cumulative impact of decisions made year after year to cut higher education funding has been "quite devastating," he said.

Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 609-989-8990 or alu@phillynews.com.