TAG troubles: Rider tries to ease financial burden

By Rachel Stengel

More than half of Rider students who received Tuition Aid Grants (TAG) from the state of New Jersey have experienced a decrease in their award amount.

Of the 882 students who received TAG for the 2011-2012 school year, 520 had their TAG award reduced by 26 percent from last year, but no student’s TAG was cut completely, according to James O’Hara, vice president for Enrollment Management.
TAG are variable, need-based awards for New Jersey residents that can be used at approved colleges and universities. According to the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESSA), “nearly one in every three full-time New Jersey students receives TAG.”
The average TAG award has decreased from $7,332 to $6,776 for the 2011-2012 school year. These reductions equate to decreases in TAG awards for individual students ranging from $450 to $2,088, according to O’Hara.
Rider officials were responsive to the financial hardship concerning students and families.
The financial aid budget for the 2011-2012 school year was increased by $3 million over the 2010-2011 academic year, according to O’Hara.
Rider added an additional $1.1 million to the budget “because of the difficult economy and the cuts in state aid,”  O’Hara said.
The $1.1 million was derived “through scholarships, grants and dedicated funds for special circumstance appeals,” Dennis Levy, associate director of the Office of Financial Aid said.
Rider is optimistic that “TAG awards may be increased for the spring semester,” according to O’Hara.
Approximately 93 percent of Rider students require some form of financial aid. In the past two years, New Jersey has cut $1.24 million in TAG awards to Rider students, said Rider President Mordechai Rozanski in an e-mail to the faculty about Rider’s financial status.
A total of $750,000 was cut by the state for TAG funding to students for the 2011-2012 school year.

This figure is in addition to the $500,000 lost for TAG for the 2010-2011 school year, said Levy.
“The financial aid expenditures required to address the needs of our new and continuing students was more than $1.1 million beyond what was anticipated when we established this year’s budget,” the e-mail to faculty said.
Students and families have felt the hardship of this financial burden.
“Last year, second semester, my TAG was significantly reduced,” sophomore Michele Thorn said. “It was definitely a frustration for my family. There will probably be a drop in students attending private colleges if the students can’t get money elsewhere.”
“Rider’s Office of Financial Aid is sensitive to changes in affordability for students and parents,” Levy said. “We continually monitor funding levels from external agencies.”
The university was able to make up the $500,000 lost after the first cut to TAG through university-provided financial aid, according to O’Hara.
Unfortunately, Rider could not make up the $750,000 taken after the second TAG cut. But, accommodations were offered to families in light of both drops in state aid.
“We worked with families very early in the process, especially with the freshmen,” Dean of Students Anthony Campbell said. “The unfortunate part of TAG is we didn’t know about the cuts until August [of 2011].”
Award letters are typically sent out in May and sometimes earlier, according to Campbell. Students were directed to contact the Finanacial Aid Office to assist them with possible solutions.
Last year, after the $500,000 cut to TAG, Rider offered one-year grants “to help offset the annual decrease in TAG awards,” Levy said. This year, after the $750,000 cut to TAG, the university could not offer such grants. Other solutions to appeals from students and parents for grant funding from the university were answered by the Financial Aid Office. Flexible installment plans were established and the assessment of late payment fees was delayed. Other families increased their monthly installment payments or borrowed from additional sources to compensate for TAG reductions. There is also a portion of the budget allocated to address hardship appeals, O’Hara said.
Rider strives to work with families and remain student-oriented.
“The commitment is to students,” Campbell said. “We want to help students. Students come first. So obviously we will try to manage other things in order to make the money available to students. We understand these are tough economic times for a lot of families.”
Rozanski and representatives of other private institutions collaborated with HESSA and Gov. Chris Christie’s office to find solutions for students said Levy. As a result, HESSA agreed to explain the basis for changes to TAG to students, and their families. HESSA will also propose a plan for mid-year TAG increases.
“President Rozanski and other not-for-profit college presidents are pushing for the largest award possible to make up the decrease,” Levy said. The announcement from HESSA is expected in November.
Rozanski remains adamant in his pursuit of the reestablishment of state-provided financial aid.
“Rest assured, we will continue to advocate for a restoration of state funds and vigorously pursue our recruitment strategies in markets of demographic opportunity,” the e-mail said. “We will also redouble our fundraising efforts, particularly to grow scholarship support so as to reduce our reliance on the operating budget for financial aid.”

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