JERSEY CITY, N.J. - A longtime state Education Department official with experience as a college administrator is to become New Jersey's first secretary of higher education, Gov. Christie announced Thursday.

Rochelle Hendricks will help oversee policy at the state's 31 public and 32 independent higher-education institutions. They enroll about 430,000 students.

Hendricks will act as an advocate for higher education, Christie said.

She joined the Education Department in 1987 and most recently served as deputy education commissioner. Hendricks ran the department for a time last year after Christie fired Bret Schundler from the post of education commissioner over a mistake on an application that might have cost the state a $400 million federal education grant.

Hendricks also oversaw Newark schools as an interim superintendent until last week, when a permanent superintendent was named.

Before her tenure with the state, Hendricks worked for more than 15 years at Princeton University in capacities including assistant dean of students, director of the university's educational opportunities program, and interim director of the women's program.

Her appointment must be confirmed by the state Senate.

The post was created under former Gov. Jon S. Corzine but never filled.

"Education matters. It matters to our economic prosperity and to our way of life," Hendricks told a gymnasium full of students from St. Anthony High School, where her appointment was announced.

Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt (D., Camden), who had been critical of Christie for not appointing someone sooner, said she was pleased that the job had been filled.

"Hopefully, she will be in a meaningful position," Lampitt said. "Higher education in New Jersey desperately needs visionary leadership."