Gov. to Students: Good Luck: Proposed budget cuts colleges’ funding by $173M

Nicholas Yovnello, union leader from Rowan University, discusses affordability in higher education at a press conference at the State House in Trenton on March 3. At right is Rider union leader Dr. Judith Johnston.

By Jess Hoogendoorn

Incoming freshmen will have to take a closer look at their finances now that Gov. Chris Christie has proposed a state budget that would slash aid to higher education to help cope with the multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall he inherited.

Christie has proposed a $173 million funding cut to public and private colleges and universities. These cuts are part of a much larger plan to cut other state-funded programs and employment.

The budget does not become official until it is approved by the New Jersey Senate and Assembly sometime in June.

Despite a Dec. 14 vow to raise funding for higher education during his first term, Christie has proposed a 100 percent cut in direct aid to New Jersey’s 14 independent colleges and universities. The total dollar amount involved in this cut is about $17.5 million. Rider would lose about $1.9 million in state aid that it puts toward its operating budget. Major  state funded scholarship programs would also be significantly cut.

“I’m hopeful that, through the legislative process, things like funding will be examined with the students’ futures in mind,” said Dean of Students Anthony Campbell. “We really don’t know what’s going to happen because nothing is final.”

In addition to the 14 independent colleges and universities, there are nine state colleges and universities, and 19 community colleges in New Jersey listed on the State of New Jersey Commission on Higher Education Web site. Other higher education institutions in the state include research universities, proprietary institutions, theological and rabbinical schools and two-year religious colleges.

In 2007-2008, New Jersey gave $177 million in need-based in-state aid to students attending public colleges and universities and about $70 million to students attending private colleges and universities. New Jersey ranked ninth nationally with a total of approximately $294 million in grant aid to students in higher education, according to the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs Web site.

However, Christie’s own Web site admits that New Jersey “ranks 50th in the nation in the number of public baccalaureate seats it provides per high school graduate.” Translated, that means the state does not and cannot college-educate nearly as many students as other states about the same size. New Jersey has 46,000 fewer students in four-year public colleges than North Carolina and 155,000 fewer than Michigan. These states are comparable to New Jersey in population.

New Jersey’s net out-migration of college students is the highest in the nation. The state loses about 30,000 students a year and imports only about 3,600 students, according to Christie’s Web site.

Trying not to raise New Jersey’s tax burden — which he called the highest in the nation — Christie’s budget relies on spending cuts at both public and private institutions. However, according to Vice President of Enrollment Management Jamie O’Hara, current students who receive scholarships or grants from Rider will not see a decline in the award amounts they receive from the university.

Those being hit the hardest by the proposed cuts would be incoming freshmen seeking Tuition Aid Grants (TAG). Current students who already receive TAG awards would not be affected by the reductions.

This year the average TAG award for Rider students is approximately $8,200.

The maximum TAG award for private schools in New Jersey is $11,340, according to O’Hara. Christie’s budget would take down private institutions’ awards to the state college award level, which this year has a maximum award of  $6,850, O’Hara said.

“There is also another state level TAG award that might be discussed,” O’Hara wrote in an e-mail. “That is the Rutgers’ level, which is higher with a maximum award of $9,270 per year. We are, of course, working to remove the cap. However, if it goes into effect at either the state colleges’ or Rutgers’ level, we will increase next year’s aid budget in an effort to do our best to minimize the impact of the cuts and help students affected by offering alternative aid.”

President Mordechai Rozanski also promised that Rider “will assist impacted students to find alternative aid.”

Christie’s budget plan would also cut the Education Opportunity Fund (EOF) grant by 8.7 percent.

“This year the EOF grant award amount was $2,500 for all students in the program,” said O’Hara.

Typically, a student who is part of EOF also receives a TAG award that is higher than the average institutional award, he said.

Approximately 900 Rider students receive TAG awards (ranging from $11,340 to $1,842) and about 180 Rider students receive EOF awards, according to O’Hara. Of the 900 TAG awards, about 220 were given to freshmen last fall. About 45 freshmen received EOF awards, he said.

A state program that would be eliminated is NJ Stars, which allows New Jersey high school students in the top 15 percent of their class to go to state community colleges for free. NJ Stars served about 4,000 students in 2008.

It is estimated that between five and 10 students who participated in the NJ Stars program attend Rider.

This year, Rider’s institutional scholarship and aid budget is approximately $40 million, according to O’Hara.

“We have initiated planning to develop a budget for next year that reflects these new financial circumstances,” Rozanski’s statement said. “To this end, I am requesting that division heads, deans and directors work together over the next few weeks to review their budget flexibility to determine where we can make the necessary adjustments in response to the proposed cuts.”

In fall 2008, Rider’s $20 million fund in the Commonfund was temporarily frozen, hires were delayed and a proposed new theater became a renovation of an existing theater because of the recession.

The state’s budget crunch last year was eased somewhat by federal stimulus funds, including $70 million for N.J. colleges.

“There is no doubt that if the various proposed cuts are implemented, next year will definitely be more challenging than we first contemplated before the state budget was announced,” Rozanski said. “However, as I mentioned in my memo, with the continued cooperation of the university community, I am confident that we can deal with these challenges.”

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