Student aid up after state cuts

By Dalton Karwacki

Despite Gov. Chris Christie’s multimillion-dollar budget cuts for the 2010-2011 academic year, Rider has managed to increase its student financial aid budget.

Christie’s budget removed $2.5 million in financial aid from Rider’s budget, $2 million in direct aid and $500,000 from Tuition Aid Grants (TAG) and the Equal Opportunity Fund (EOF). The university closed the gap through rearrangement of items in the full operating budget and through action taken by various employee groups and unions on campus, according to Dan Higgins, executive director of university communications. For the 2010-2011 academic year, Rider has a financial aid budget of $42.5 million, up from $40.6 million from the previous year.

“In the end, through budget adjustments in various units and reallocations, we were able to make up the difference to cover the TAG awards of all incoming freshmen as well as the financial aid needs of continuing students,” Higgins said.

Christie’s original budget cut $17.5 million in direct aid across the entire state, $2 million of which was taken from Rider. Also proposed was a $10.9 million statewide cut in TAG and EOF funding, $1 million of which would come from Rider. TAG is a need-based financial assistance program for which almost one-third of New Jersey students are eligible. EOF is a program intended to help low-income students afford the cost of receiving higher education.

The direct aid cut remained unchanged, but Christie and the state Legislature were successfully lobbied by Rider and other private colleges and universities to redistribute the TAG/EOF cut such that Rider only lost about $500,000, Higgins said.

According to Higgins, this left the university with $2.5 million of lost state funding for student financial aid. The university covered the losses and increased the financial aid budget to $42.5 million, marking an increase of $4.4 million, or 12 percent, in the last 15 months, all without the need to lay off employees.

This was in addition to the state financial aid funding, which rose from $8 million in the 2008-2009 academic year to $9.9 million in the 2009-2010 year, before Christie’s cuts lowered it to $7.4 million for the 2010-2011 year, according to Jamie O’Hara, vice president of enrollment management.

O’Hara said that 95 percent of Rider students receive some form of financial aid. The average aid package is $11,277 when counting only Rider scholarships and grants and $14,738 when federal and state awards are added.

According to Higgins, the rest of the adjustments needed to cover the cuts came from expanding the university’s revenue base from donors, camps and conferences, and by careful management of vacancies.

“Rider has been fortunate in avoiding position eliminations, generating savings instead by holding position vacancies from normal attrition open for a longer period than usual,” he said. “About $650,000 was generated in personnel savings by selectively deferring hires in a number of vacancies.”

Junior Ethan Grossman was relieved to learn that the university would not need to eliminate positions.

“When I heard about the budget cuts, I was really afraid, mainly because my father is an employee at Rider,” Grossman said. “My thought process was that Rider would try and compensate for this lost money through cutting jobs. The fact that [President] Rozanski came out with a statement that no employees were being fired put my mind at ease.”

About $250,000 in savings came from a restructuring of the pay-raise agreements with university employees. The Rider chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was the first to reach this agreement, approaching the university with the proposal on the condition that all money saved would go to the financial aid budget. This agreement replaced the original 3.4 percent raise with a phased plan that will provide a 2.4 percent raise in September, with the remaining 1 percent taking effect in January. This move added approximately $83,000 to the aid budget.

Shortly after this, administrators, including University President Mordechai Rozanski, non-union staff and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), all offered to make the same deal, collectively saving the university $171,000, all of which was allocated to the financial aid budget, Higgins said.

“We didn’t have to do it, but when we heard what the faculty did, we thought it made sense,” said Jo-Ann Sokolowski, co-president of the Rider chapter of AFSCME. “So we went to our board, and our board decided ‘yes,’ so we told our members and our members agreed. We’re not really giving back, but we’re helping, and it’s nice to do it as part of the community.”

Another $1.5 million was found by shifting some of the university’s operating budget for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. The university’s total operating budget is $186 million, according to Higgins.

“In order to meet our budgetary obligations and compensate for the state budget cuts, financial aid needs of students, final enrollment results and other needs, university budget managers were asked to identify potential savings in operating costs while making every effort to preserve the integrity of academic programs and student support services,” Higgins said. “In addition to the phased-in salary savings, more than $1.5 million was saved or is being saved in various expenditure line items.”

Rozanski said he was pleased with the way the impact of the cuts was minimized.

“Clearly, compensating for the New Jersey state budget cuts to our direct aid and TAG was challenging,” he said. “But with the help of our entire community, including phased salary savings, and through rigorous financial management, we were able to make careful budget reductions or reallocations to absorb the cuts without compromising the quality of our academic programs, student financial aid, student support programs or institutional progress.”

Higgins noted that there are more than 200 line items in the operating budget and that many units have discretion in achieving their savings.

“They have done a marvelous job in helping the university achieve its financial goals, reflecting a shared dedication to our academic mission and students,” he said.

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