Board of Trustees talks possible tuition tactics

By Tom Ballard
Opinions Editor

The College’s Board of Trustees met on Tuesday, April 26, to discuss a wide range of issues affecting the College, especially the topic of next year’s tuition.

“There will probably not be a recommendation coming from me to the board that there’ll be no tuition increase,” College President R. Barbara Gitenstein said.

Gitenstein, along with College Treasurer Lloyd Ricketts, gave a presentation to the board that delved into the College’s planned budget and possible tuition increases. The College cannot finalize its budget until after Gov. Chris Christie and the state legislature work out the state’s budget — which includes funding for the state’s higher education institutions — by Friday, July 1.

While the budget has not yet been passed, Gitenstein said that Christie’s proposed budget serves as a good indicator of what the state will be willing to give to higher education.

According to the presentation, Christie’s budget calls for allocating $2.2 billion for all higher education costs, including $27.18 million for the College. Last year, the state cut the College’s funding by $2.1 million from the $29.3 million, or 18.1 percent of the College’s budget, that the state gave the College for four straight years, from 2012 to 2015.

The presentation also noted that tuition brought in by the College between 2012 and 2016 has increased from $104.693 million to $122.713 million, but has dropped slightly in the percent of the budget that it covers, from 64.7 percent to 64.5 percent. In those same four years, the College has also received an increase in gifts and other contributions, which totalled $2.668 million, or 1.6 percent of the budget, in 2012, compared to $7.732 million, or 4.1 percent of the budget, in 2016.

Gitenstein said that an increase in tuition might be necessary in order to fill a number of new positions, many of which the College is required to create in order to abide by new federal and state regulations.

“One of the things that is particularly frustrating… (about being an) administrator of a public institution is that the less money that you are allocated by the state or federal government, the more requirements they put on you,” Gitenstein said. “Those requirements can become very onerous. At some point, you simply have to hire someone else to do it because there (are) only 24 hours in a day.”

Gitenstein pointed out that the new positions will include an additional Title IX coordinator and more athletic and counseling personnel.

In addition to paying for the salaries of new employees, the College is also required to pay for many employees’ fringe benefits — non-salary benefits, such as healthcare, pension plans and paid vacations. While 859 employees are covered by the state, according to the presentation, the College has to pay for any extra employees.

“That number of 859 (employees) has not changed in about 20 years,” Gitenstein said. “So despite growth or our changes in programs or our addition responsibilities, any position above that 859, the College itself is paying. One other thing that you would notice is that over time, the percentage of appropriation is becoming less than the percentage of the fringe cost and that’s happening to most of our sister schools.”

Trustee and Secretary of the board Robert A. Altman said that it is “unacceptable” for the state to not change the number of employees that it covers for the College.

In the presentation, Ricketts proposed three different scenarios for the College’s budget — one based on the price of tuition remaining the same, one based on a 2 percent increase in the tuition price and one based on a 2.5 percent increase. According to Ricketts, if the board decides not to increase tuition, the College will place itself into a $4 million deficit for the next fiscal year. If tuition is increased by 2 percent, the College will still be in a $2 million deficit and if it is increased by 2.5 percent, the College would be facing a deficit of roughly $1 million.

“I think we’re going (to raise tuition by) 3 percent. I don’t see how you’re going to miss a million dollars and find it on the floor, so it strikes me that another 3 (percent tuition increase) is on the horizon,” Trustee and Chair of the state’s College Affordability Study Commission Frederick Keating (’70) said. The alumnus noted that last year, the board hiked tuition by 3 percent in order to cover the cut in state funding.

According to the presentation, for every 1 percent increase in student charges, tuition will increase $154 for in-state students, $264 for out-of-state students and $126 for room-and-board.

According to Gitenstein, the 3 percent increase in tuition for the current fiscal year has not affected enrollment or interest in the College, noting that the number of deposits for students to reserve a spot at the College is the same now as it was this time last year.

Ricketts said that the College is working hard to develop a plan that best benefits the College and its students, but did note that there are obstacles that makes it difficult.

“Our key priorities are access and affordability in terms of making sure that students can attend the College (and receive a) high quality education at a reasonable price,” Ricketts said. “We are working within constraints of economic and political realities.”

He also said that while the College has no new construction projects planned to begin in the next fiscal year, once the new STEM building and renovated Brower Student Center open, the College will have to pay more for the maintenance of those buildings.

“We’re mindful that the challenges for 2018 and 2019 will be greater than 2017,” Ricketts said. “Under (Gitenstein’s) leadership, we have started to develop a multi-year budget plan.”

According to Gitenstein, the Tuition Aid Grant (TAG) program — a state program that awards financial grants to students based on economic needs — should see an increase of about 2 percent, or $17.8 million, for next year. However, Gitenstein warns that the 2 percent increase does not mean that students currently receiving TAG funding will receive 2 percent more funding.

The Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) — a state program that provides financial aid to students with “educationally and economically disadvantaged background(s),” according to the Office of the State’s Secretary of Higher Education — would be cut in Christie’s budget by $2.565 million, or 6.2 percent of the entire program.

However, Gitenstein said that the legislature would most likely restore some of that funding back in the final budget given the state’s strong support for the program.

“It just seems to me that the demand (for EOF) is increasing and not decreasing,” Trustee Eleanor V. Horne said, blasting the proposed cuts.

New Jersey’s 19 community colleges will continue to receive level funding at about $134 million a year under Christie’s budget. The New Jersey Student Tuition Assistant Reward Scholarship (NJ STARS) program — a state scholarship program that aids students in the top 15 percent of their graduating high school classes in attending community college and four-year institutions, according to the program’s Website — will also continue to receive level funding at $6.907 million.

“Personally, professionally, as a grandparent looking into what’s coming (for my family), I don’t like it, but I think that it’s all thought out (by the College compared to) what I’m hearing from other places,” Keating said.

In addition to the budget and tuition proposals, the board also unanimously approved of the College’s five-year strategic plan that is entitled “TCNJ 2021: Bolder, Better, Brighter.”

The plan will attempt to attract and retain talented students and staff, enhance signature experiences, improve the technological infrastructure and promote collaboration for cost-saving and revenue-generating measures at the College.

Members of the board were pleased with the presentation and the items addressed at the meeting.

“It’s just important for us to maintain support and strength on our campus and I would like to commend everyone that participated in the development of the budget,” Trustee Rosie Hymerling said. “It’s a fair budget. It’s a good tuition.”

The board will meet next on Tuesday, July 5, in order to set the tuition level for the College’s next fiscal year.