I’m working on an updated profile of my alma mater, Rutgers University-New Brunswick to post pretty soon. But today I wanted to focus on a recently-announced program at a sister campus, Rutgers-Camden.
Students who will be incoming freshmen may, depending on their family’s income, be eligible to pay little-to-no tuition as well as the general campus fee starting next year. Located only one mile (traveling across the Ben Franklin Bridge) from Philadelphia, Rutgers-Camden has approximately 4,900 undergraduates. All but two percent come from New Jersey according to the campus’s most 2014-15 Common Data set.
As part of a program called “Bridging the Gap,” Rutgers-Camden students who come from families with an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $60,000 or less will receive a grant covering all of their tuition and the general campus fee not already covered by federal and/or state grants. Families with an AGI of $60,001 to $100,000 will receive a grant covering 50% of their remaining tuition and the general campus fee after any other need-based federal and/or state grants are applied. There is no GPA requirement to maintaining the financial aid, only that recipients remain in good academic standing and complete at least 30 credits each year. Other Rutgers-Camden students qualify for need-based scholarship aid under New Jersey’s Economic Opportunity Fund. Rutgers-Camden also awards merit-based aid to deserving students. Among the freshmen who entered in 2014, there were 48 who received merit awards averaging just over $4,100, according to the school’s most recent Common Data Set.
The university has estimated that 200 incoming freshmen would benefit from this assistance. The freshman class that entered in 2014 had 421 full-time students–they would be the only ones eligible to be considered for aid under Bridging the Gap. Essentially, if Rutgers-Camden has a full-time freshman class of similar size, and the university continued to grant awards under its other need-based and merit-based programs, it is doubtful that most of the freshman class would pay more than $7,500 (my guess for 2016-17) in tuition and fees.
Given the commitment, as well as the numbers who would benefit, this decision by Rutgers University could be considered admirable. Rutgers-Camden is primarily a commuter school. Just over 40 percent of the freshman class lives on campus; overall, over 90 percent of the undergraduate student body are commuters who do not live there. Most of the students likely come from commuting distance of campus and attended Camden-area high schools.
Given the students Rutgers-Camden likely attracts, is this school a “good” school? Most recently, 82 percent of the students who entered in 2013 returned for their sophomore year. That would appear to put the campus in a good position to graduate half of those full-time students on time.
Unfortunately, the analysis that I might do for a residential four-year school does not apply well to Rutgers-Campus. When a college reports retention rates and graduation rates it combines students who entered as part-time students with those who committed to full-time enrollment. While 421 full-time students were part of last year’s freshman class, there were also 211 who entered with the thought of going part-time. The result of including full-time and part-time students together in calculating graduation rates means that a four-year graduation rate (less than 28 percent for this school for students who entered in 2009) or even the six-year graduation rate (56 percent for those who entered in that same year) is not terribly relevant. Rutgers-Camden does lose just over a quarter of the students before they are likely to declare a major. That might have some relevance. But we do not know where those students went and why. That might not matter anyway, if Bridging the Gap fulfills its potential.
Could Bridging the Gap make Rutgers-Camden a more selective school?
I’d say yes, if the students who clearly know, or at least believe that they qualify for free tuition or half tuition apply. Some might see Rutgers-Camden as a safe school if they already live nearby. Others might be reaching. In 2013-14 Rutgers-Camden accepted 60 percent of the students who applied to be in last year’s freshman class. The middle 50 percent for the SAT for these students was between 920 and 1130 while 62 percent ranked in the top quarter, or higher of their high school class. My bet is that the SAT range for the next incoming class will be slightly higher because the volume of applications will rise and the discounts will be a major attraction.
What is the potential for Bridging the Gap to matter?
Very high, if the university puts its student success resources into directing the students towards the right academic program those students who are eligible for the aid are more likely to stay, as long as Rutgers-Camden offers a major that they want. Those students who want engineering, for example, will need to transfer out at some point, because this campus does not grant engineering degrees. However, all of the common business majors are offered–the business school is accredited the same as Rutgers-New Brunswick–as are programs in criminal justice, education and nursing.
More important, free or vastly-discounted tuition and fees will better enable the full-time students to remain full-time instead of dropping to a part-time status to work more hours outside of school. It will not pay for these students to work more hours because they would lose the aid. Nor will it pay for the student to transfer out, if s/he would need to pay significantly more to attend another school. If Rutgers-Camden could graduate 100 of the 200 students who would likely receive aid through Bridging the Gap on time, the campus’s four-year graduation rate would be around 50 percent, and there is the potential to do better.
Could this reduce the reliance on loans for these students? Possibly, as long as the students maintain good academic standing and graduate on time. According to the Project on Student Debt Rutgers-Camden students who graduated in 2013 and took out loans–this was 77 percent of the class–owed, on average $28,700. That number might or might not be relevant. Rutgers-Camden has a larger junior-senior student body than it has in the freshman or sophomore classes. Graduates who have that debt might have loans that they took out when they were enrolled at other schools.
The potential for this initiative is also very high if the university sticks to the commitment even in the event of declining state scholarship funds or Federal Pell Grant funds made available on a per-student basis. This is going to be difficult given a conservative Congress and a state economy that has not rebounded as its conservative governor hoped it would when he took office six years ago.
Checking the 2014-15 Common Data Set for Rutgers-Camden, I found that the campus had handled just over $21 million in State and Federal need-based scholarships and grants. At the same time Rutgers-Camden awarded just under $3.6 million in need-based scholarships from its own funds as well as approximately $2.2 million in merit-based awards. In order for Rutgers-Camden to sustain Bridging the Gap the university would need to be in the position to compensate for tuition and fee increases as well as cuts in state and Federal grants.
Currently, the maximum award under the Federal Pell Grant is $5,775 while the maximum award available to Rutgers students on all campus through the New Jersey Tuition Aid Grant program is $9,148. While it is quite rare to see students receive the maximum for both awards, the combination of both awards already makes Rutgers-Camden tuition-free to such students.
So, let’s say the average student received half of each award, or $7,462. That would put Rutgers-Camden on the hook for, on average, half of the tuition and fees for each full-time freshman. The university would be on the hook for even more if it also tries to help by compensating for its own tuition and fee increases. A campus chancellor who can keep to that commitment while improving retention and graduation rates will have my highest respect. Such a person is as close to a hero as you can find in the world of higher education.
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