As colleges and universities open up for the fall semester this week and next, more evidence about how state budget cuts are limiting the opportunities of low-income students comes from New Jersey. Funding for the popular Tuition Aid Grant program has not kept pace with demand, forcing an 8% across the board cut of all recipient grants. (And this comes after the state actually increased funding for the program by 18%.) The nearly 1,800 students expecting to receive aid through the program this year are now forced to struggle to make up that 8%, which ranges from $192 to $872. All this comes as tuition rates soar and campuses cut back on the services they provide.
We should not be putting short-term budget deficits ahead of the need to education the next generation. This is a continuation of the failure to plan long-term, however this time it is the students who are directly immediately hurt.
Published: Monday, August 30, 2010, 6:51 AM Updated: Monday, August 30, 2010, 12:00 PM
Kelly Heyboer/ The Star-Ledger
Low-income college students who rely on New Jersey’s popular Tuition Aid Grant program to help pay their tuition bills will see their aid checks slashed by nearly 8 percent as they return to campus for the new school year, state officials said.
Amanda Brown/The Star-Ledger Rutgers University sign in New Brunswick in a 2002 photo. The maximum Tuition Aid Grant awards at the institution will go down $714 as tuition and fees go up an average of $673.
The cuts — which will affect nearly a third of New Jersey’s full-time college students — mean the state’s neediest students will see their annual grants cut by between $192 and $872 as tuition rates continue to rise.
State funding for the Tuition Aid Grant, or TAG, program increased by 18 percent this year. But the number of New Jersey students qualifying for the the need-based grants surged by nearly 1,800 thanks to the lingering economic downturn.
So, state officials said they were forced to cut the awards for everyone.
“To remain within available resources and to fund all eligible students, it was the necessary to reduce awards for 2010-11,” said AnnMarie Bouse,spokeswoman for the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, the state agency that oversees the grants. “Students are encouraged to talk to their financial aid administrators to determine if there are other sources of aid for which they may qualify, including private scholarships, institutional aid or federal aid.”
The state’s public, private and county colleges are scrambling to find money to help their neediest students cover the cuts. Many low-income students rely on the TAG program to pay the bulk of their college costs.
“It’s extremely meaningful, not only for these students but for their families,” Bloomfield College President Richard Levao said.
Nearly 90 percent of Bloomfield College’s full-time undergraduates receive state TAG awards to help pay the private school’s $21,200 annual tuition. The college expects its students will lose a total of $1 million due to the TAG cuts, though the school is trying to find money to help the neediest students cover larger-than-expected tuition bills, Levao said.
“We’re trying to do it on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
New Jersey’s $294 million TAG program is considered one of the most generous student financial aid programs in the nation. Only New Jersey residents attending in-state colleges are eligible, but the grants can be used at both public and private schools. The awards do not have to be paid back.
Students are awarded grants on a sliding scale based on family income and the type of college they attend. This year, the TAG awards will range from $978 to $10,468 per student.
The maximum yearly grant will be: $2,318 at county colleges (a $192 cut compared to last year); $6,326 at four-year public colleges (a $526 cut); $8,554 at Rutgers and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (a $714 cut) and $9,692 at New Jersey Institute of Technology (an $808 cut).
At the state’s private colleges, the top TAG award will be $10,468 (an $872 cut). At DeVry University, Berkeley College and the other for-profit colleges, the maximum grant will be $6,326 (a $526 cut).
This year’s TAG cuts angered many in the higher education community, who noted Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature were able to find money in the state budget to fund the popular NJ STARS program, which gives merit scholarships to students of all incomes. But the TAG program, which is used solely by low-income students, failed to get enough funding to cover the increase in eligible families.
The TAG awards table was finalized earlier this month by the board at the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority and sent to Christie for final approval.
Jonathan Nycz, one of the student representatives on the student assistance authority board, said it was difficult to cut financial aid for the poorest of New Jersey’s low-income students. But the board felt it was better to lower the awards for everyone, rather than deny grants to some.
“It’s unfortunate they’re going down. But it could have been a lot worse,” said Nycz, 21, a senior industrial engineering major at Rutgers.
Many students said they were still waiting to hear what their TAG award will be this year. Alexandro Ceballo, a mathematics major at Middlesex County College, said he was expecting a $1,900 check based on early estimates.
But if his TAG award is cut by a few hundred dollars, Ceballo expects his federal Pell grant and NJ STARS scholarship will help cover the gap and the 2 percent tuition hike at his school.
“I’m very fortunate,” said Ceballo, 20, of Perth Amboy. “At the end of the day, it’s a lot more affordable to go to county college.”
Students at more costly schools may have a more difficult time covering the cuts, higher education officials said.
At Rutgers, the maximum TAG awards will go down $714 as tuition and fees go up an average of $673. The state university increased its need-based Rutgers Assistance Grants program by $3.5 million to help its 11,000 TAG students cover their bills.
“We are using all of the resources we have available to help our neediest students meet their expenses,” said Sandra Lanman, a Rutgers spokeswoman.
© 2010 NJ.com. All rights reserved.