Findings

  • State aid to public colleges in New Jersey relies on a 25-year-old process that does not factor in enrollment and has led to inequities in how much per-student funding colleges get.
  • Growing New Jersey colleges that try to make education accessible to the most number of students, including Richard Stockton College, are penalized with lower funding ratios.
  • Students at some state colleges pay as much as 75 percent of the cost of education in tuition as state aid has dwindled.

 

Richard Stockton College will get about $19.8 million in state aid next year, or about $2,800 per student, to subsidize the cost of educating about 7,000 full-time undergraduates.

The College of New Jersey will get $29.3 million from the state for about 6,300 full-time undergraduate students, or almost $4,700 per student.

The aid difference - almost $1,900 per student - is one example of how the state's approach to higher-education funding has created inequities within a college funding system that benefits some colleges at the expense of others. An outdated system forces some students to pay a higher percentage of the cost of their education in tuition and fees, face reduced services or leave the state for more affordable options.

Efforts to meet growing student demand are, in effect, penalized because state aid does not increase with enrollment.

"There's been no change in how state money is allocated for at least the last 20 years, and that has been hardest on colleges like Stockton that are growing," President Herman J. Saatkamp Jr. said. He said a 1 percent increase in tuition raises about $500,000, so it would take an almost 20 percent tuition increase to make up the state funding gap between Stockton and TCNJ.

"Tuition just cannot make up for the lack of state support," Saatkamp said.

New Jersey is ranked among the lowest states nationally in making college accessible to its residents, a 2008 report by the National Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs shows, and some state colleges have been expanding to meet demand.

The lack of recognition for enrollment increases, which dates to 1986, is made worse by recent cuts in state aid. The cuts have reduced the per-student funding level from a statewide average of more than $6,000 per student in 2006 to $4,600 in 2010.

Students in New Jersey already pay a larger proportion of public college costs than students in almost every other state, the Delta Project report states.

Nationally, students paid an average of half of the cost of their education at a public college, the report shows. In New Jersey, students paid two-thirds of the cost. But many New Jersey students pay even more: The national report was based on Rutgers, the state's flagship university, which gets a larger state subsidy of about $6,300 per student. At some of the nine smaller state colleges, students are paying closer to 75 percent of the cost.

Rowan University Provost and interim President Ali Houshmand said the system especially discriminates against the more economically strapped southern counties, where there are fewer colleges.

"We are in a knowledge economy," he said. "If we can't educate people, we can't attract new business. (The current system) just perpetuates poorness."

Redistribution alone not favored

The Governor's Task Force on Higher Education recognized the problem in a report released in January. It strongly recommended that the state develop what it called "a more rational approach" to college funding. But with no additional money available, any immediate solution would simply take from some colleges to give to others, a system college presidents generally oppose when everyone's aid has been shrinking.

"Everyone agrees we need to do something, but no one really wants to do it because the only real solution is putting more money into the system," said Ramapo College President Peter Mercer. "It's like discussing going to heaven. It's a good idea, just not right now."

But with colleges under pressure to control costs, some presidents have started speaking up.

"I've been talking about it a lot," Montclair State University President Susan Cole said. "There is an extremely wide spread (in funding) between the colleges. Rutgers is at the top, and they should be. But they're getting more than twice as much state aid per student as we do. That's just terrible."

An analysis by The Press of Atlantic City of higher education and budget data shows Rutgers this year gets an average of $6,336 per full-time undergraduate student. Montclair gets $2,869. Stockton gets even less, at $2,807. The colleges also have graduate programs, but they are generally self-supporting, and most operating aid is targeted to undergraduate education.

The Press review also shows that three of the colleges that receive proportionally the most aid - Rutgers, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and The College of New Jersey - also charge the highest tuition and fees. While some extra costs reflect the different programs at the colleges, presidents said they are trying to remain affordable to middle-class families.

"Our applications are at a record high," Saatkamp said. "We are looking for other ways to raise money and save money, but with less state support (than other colleges), it does limit what more we can do."

Hope for more attention

The heart of the problem, college presidents said, is that state government has never made its public colleges a high priority. The state Senate does not even have a Higher Education Committee.

Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-Camden, who chairs the Assembly Higher Education Committee, agreed, saying that without a statewide focus and mission for the colleges, it is unlikely the funding policy will change.

"Everyone has good intentions," she said. "But we need a vision."

The presidents hope Gov. Chris Christie's professed commitment to the colleges will translate into more action. He established the task force, did not cut aid to the colleges for next year and recently named an acting secretary of higher education, former state Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks, to represent college interests at the state level.

"Issues get discussed, but never resolved," said Glenn Lang, acting director of the state Commission on Higher Education. "The task force had 70 recommendations. The biggest challenge is where will new money come from."

Source of problem decades old

In the 1970s and '80s, when the colleges were run by the state, aid was driven by enrollment. In 1986, Gov. Thomas H. Kean signed bills giving the colleges more authority to run themselves and offered challenge grants to spur innovation. In 1996, Gov. Christie Whitman eliminated the Department of Higher Education and gave the colleges autonomy to set their own programs and tuition.

The colleges set different missions, and overall, undergraduate enrollment in the state's public colleges has grown steadily, although at different rates for different colleges. But the distribution of state aid has never been reviewed, while overall aid has been steadily reduced.

While state legislators have criticized tuition increases, the state share of direct funding to colleges has dropped 23 percent from $701 million in operating aid in 2006 to $542 million this year, while total enrollment has increased more than 15 percent.

One solution would be for the colleges to stop accepting so many students. That's what The College of New Jersey did when it decided to become a small, very selective state college. TCNJ gets almost $4,700 per student in state aid, and charges the highest annual tuition and fees of all of the state colleges, $13,293 in 2010-11.

Harold Eickoff, who was president of TCNJ from 1980 to 1998, said the laws passed by Kean and Whitman gave the college the opportunity to reduce enrollment and still retain their base state aid. But as other colleges grew, the state policies never changed, leading to disproportionate funding.

"The aid pattern just sort of emerged," he said. "No one ever really looked at the overall impact. But in any kind of readjustment now, toes will be stepped on."

He said his goal as president of TCNJ was to recruit top students and improve the image of state public colleges in New Jersey.

"They were treated as second rate, and the state funded them as second rate," Eickoff said. Kean made the effort that gave us a kick start, but we have to create a system that is attractive to students." He cited Virginia as a state where public colleges are considered on par with top private colleges.

Trying to help students

New Jersey City University gets among the highest state subsidies, but President Carlos Hernandez said the school has used that money to keep tuition low for their urban students. NJCU's 2010-11 tuition and fee cost of $9,348 is the lowest in the state. Hernandez opposed any reallocation of funds, citing limited resources to all the state colleges.

"There is no incentive to help colleges grow," he said. "Right now, the state would just be reallocating the same pie. We need a better approach."

He said his college works with low-income students who are often not as prepared for college and that should be given extra consideration.

New Jersey is generous in providing direct financial aid to low-income students, but as costs rise, middle-class students must pay, or borrow, more. In 2009, 5,043 students borrowed $52.8 million in NJClass loans, an almost 10 percent increase over 2008. Rowan, TCNJ, Montclair and Stockton had the most students taking the loans.

Saatkamp said that as one of the youngest state colleges, Stockton is still in a growth phase, and while extra students generate extra tuition revenue, they also require more services, housing and classrooms. The college has added housing, just completed a new Campus Center and is preparing to build a new science building.

Like many of the colleges, Stockton has sought more fundraising and entered into private partnerships to generate revenue. But Saatkamp is hopeful Christie will review how the colleges are funded.

"I'm more optimistic now than I have been," Saatkamp said. "At least we have no aid reduction next year."

Montclair's Cole said the first question state officials should ask is "How much should it cost to educate a student at a state college?" followed by "How much should be funded by the state?"

"It's just never been asked," she said. "How much is the state investing per degree granted? We can't just keep going like this for another decade."

College presidents said competing schools such as Penn State University and University of Delaware discount tuition specifically to attract top New Jersey students, making it more affordable for them to leave the state as tuition at New Jersey's public colleges rises to compensate for lost state aid. Data from the College Board's 2010 report on college-bound seniors shows that after Rutgers, Montclair, TCNJ and Rowan, the next four colleges that receive the most SAT scores from New Jersey students are Penn State, University of Delaware, Drexel University and Seton Hall University.

"If we keep losing state aid, at what point would we just really stop being public institutions?" Cole asked.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241