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Tuition hike hits students where it hurts

in CAMPUS by

Starting this summer, Mercer is raising tuition by $8 per credit which works out to about a $240 per year increase for full-time students. On the surface this may not seem like much, but the hike comes at the same time as Governor Christie slashes education funding to close a gaping state budget deficit of $11 billion.

“I hadn’t heard about [the tuition hike],” said second-year Nursing major Anida Masuod, “but I have scholarships and grants that are paying for my tuition so it doesn’t affect me financially.”

Depending on what type of grants Masuod has, her funding may not be as safe as she thinks. Governor Christie’s budget makes deep cuts to several key grant programs including the Education Opportunity Fund (EOF) that funds low-income student and Tuition Assistance Grants (TAG) which are used by nearly one in every three full-time New Jersey students according to the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority.

Rachel Young, a first-year Education major, said of the increase, “[$8 per credit] is a lot.  Good thing I have a scholarship.  It doesn’t really affect me because I am in the NJSTARS program.”

Although Young may be safe, she is one of the lucky ones. However, the popular NJSTARS program, which provides total tuition remission to community college for high school students in New Jersey who graduate in the top 15 percent of their class, is being eliminated in the Christie budget. Students like Young will continue to be funded, provided they maintain the needed GPA and course load, but there will be no more NJSTARS.

Not all students are as sanguine about the tuition hike as Young and Masuod. Sara Hicks, a second-year Nursing major, said of the increase, “Are you shittin’ me?  That’s exactly why I’m not going to this school next semester.”

Hicks says she hopes to transfer to a four-year school next year.  When questioned about the fact that tuition at any four-year school would be much higher than it is at Mercer, Hicks said that the costs were offset by the fact that four-year colleges offered more services, such as a health center.

Under the Christie budget, Hicks may end up staying at Mercer, however, as funding for four-year state colleges could drop as much as 17 percent.

In justifying Mercer’s tuition and fee increase request at the board meeting as well as at a public informational meeting on Feb. 15, Mercer President Patricia Donohue said that there is a $350 thousand shortfall in the current operating budget for this year.  In addition, the state budget crisis may be expected to result in 10 percent less state funding for next year as compared with this year, or an approximately $1 million cut.

Coupled with a possible cut in the Mercer county contribution, Donohue says the increase in tuition and fees was needed in order to close the $1.5 million gap, which does not include increases in operating costs for next year.

Donohue also noted that the increase in operating costs for next year, which include health insurance premium increases and negotiated salary contract increases, will be accompanied by cuts in personnel and by delaying expenditures for purchases.

When asked if cuts in personnel would include teaching positions, Donohue said that they would.  According to Donohue, five positions were cut in January, including three vacant faculty positions and two staff positions.  There are also now two open faculty positions which will not be filled.

When asked if the reduction in faculty would result in fewer classes or sections being offered, Donohue said that there were no plans to reduce course offerings and adjunct faculty would fill the gaps.

Enrollment at Mercer has increased by 9 percent this fall and is projected to increase another 3 percent next fall.  Donohue said the school addressed the surge in enrollment by adding more afternoon, weekend and online classes, and by increasing the numbers of adjunct faculty.  According to Mercer’s institutional data, adjunct faculty now teach 60 percent of classes at Mercer.

Asked how the increase in use of adjunct staff affects the college, Dean of Liberal Arts Robin Schore said, “We rely far too much on adjuncts.  It’s a national trend [but] it changes the atmosphere of the college….It’s sad to see full-time faculty numbers drop.”

Schore goes on to say of adjunct faculty, “While they are often very good [teachers], they are not as available and shouldn’t be expected to be.” Adjunct faculty generally have other jobs and are only on campus briefly each week. They do not have responsibility for, nor are they paid for, advising students or campus organizations, or participating in campus activities.

In an article entitled “Effects of Part-Time Faculty Employment on Community College Graduation Rates” published in the Journal of Higher Education’s November/December 2006 issue, Daniel Jacoby describes research showing that graduation rates for community colleges in the United States are “adversely affected when institutions rely heavily upon part-time faculty instruction.”

Jacoby goes on to add, “Negative effects may be partially offset if the use of part-time faculty increases the net faculty resource available per student. However, the evidence suggests that this offset is insufficient to reverse negative effects upon graduation rates.”

In recent months Mercer’s administration has made widely publicized remarks establishing priorities to increase retension of students and success in advising. In light of the reliance on adjunct factuly,   these goals may be particularly difficult to acheive.

When asked about Mercer’s reliance on adjunct faculty, who are currently paid $830 per credit hour, President Donohue said that while college accreditation bodies used to set a guideline ceiling of 50 percent adjunct faculty for accreditation, that standard has not been applied to community colleges in recent years.

Guy Generals, Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs, says that when enrollment spikes, adding adjunct faculty is the only way to quickly meet the demand for more course sections.  He notes that using more adjuncts also avoids the budget commitment of adding full-time faculty who might not be needed when enrollment declines.

Bottom line for students: 2010 means higher tuition, less assistance and more classes taught by part-time faculty.

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