By Sarah Siock
With college becoming more unaffordable for students, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation that funds two years of free tuition to students enrolled at public colleges in New Jersey whose family’s adjusted gross income is between $0 and $65,000 annually. However, for private universities such as Rider who are unable to access these funds, this new legislation could pose a threat to their enrollment.
The legislation is part of New Jersey’s Garden State Guarantee, which is the state’s promise to make a college degree more accessible and affordable. According to NJ.Gov, the Garden State Guarantee was signed into law as part of New Jersey’s 2022 budget in June and will be implemented for the 2022-23 academic year. Qualifying students will receive a tuition reduction during their third and fourth years of study.
Some universities, such as Rutgers New Brunswick, have expanded the Garden State Guarantee to offer four years of free tuition if families earn less than $65,000 a year. According to the university’s website, nearly 7,600 students are expected to take advantage of the program.
However, Rider’s Vice President of Enrollment Management Drew Aromando said the Garden State Guarantee does not eliminate the university’s ability to compete with public universities.
“It sort of tips the scales obviously from the affordability side in the public institution’s favor. I would argue though that having the experience you have at Rider with the professors and the small campus for students who want that, you’re not going to beat that,” said Aromando.
Aromando did say the Garden State Guarantee may affect the number of students who transfer to Rider since the tuition reduction is for students’ later years in college. He said nearly 180 new students transfer to Rider each year.
In recent years, Rider’s enrollment has dwindled. Aromando explained that nationally fewer students are graduating from high school, and the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated enrollment decline. At the fall convocation, Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo said Rider’s undergraduate returning student rate dropped from 80.3% to 76.8% this past year. Additionally, Rider’s total enrollment is at 3,827 students, which is a decrease from 4,218 students the previous year.
The Garden State Guarantee also provides a discounted rate to those who have an adjusted gross income between $65,001 and $80,000, stating they will pay a net price of no more than $7,500 for tuition and fees. Political science professor Micah Rasmussen provided insight into why the state may have implemented a program like this during the pandemic.
“A lot of families and a lot of students say we just can’t afford to [pay for college] right now. I know that to a progressive governor like Gov. Murphy that has to be like nails on a chalkboard to hear that. When you think about higher education for your children being an important part of the American dream, I think that hearing concerns like that make [Murphy] want to address that,” said Rasmussen.
Aromando pointed to Rider’s “Lifting Barriers” initiative that was announced in 2020, as an effective way to compete with the Garden State Guarantee at public universities. Lifting Barriers cut tuition rates by over $10,000 and dropped the university’s tuition sticker price, or its price before discounts and aid, to $45,120 to $35,000 a year.
“One of the many things [Lifting Barriers] focused on was driving an affordability model that meets every income level. For students that fall into this income level, we’re doing pretty good as far as getting close to them having an extremely low cost or no cost on tuition and fees. … At that income level, with New Jersey tag resources and federal pell resources, which are included in this for the state institutions, we’re getting pretty close to zero [tuition], if not getting them to zero,” said Aromando.
Looking at the future, Aromando said the continued decline in high school enrollment will be the largest obstacle for the university to overcome.
“Where we need to tweak, we are working on those tweaks. … [Adjustments] are not always easy, but the worst thing you could do is either ignore them and pretend they don’t exist or do nothing about them. … There are challenges, no doubt about it, but I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe in the university,” said Aromando.