Why raising tuition is essential at Essex County College | Opinion

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist
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on April 18, 2015

By Gale E. Gibson

Essex County College's enrollment has dipped below pre-recession levels, and the school is facing a budget deficit.

 

Essex County College, like all colleges, has two essential missions: first, to provide students

with excellent educational programs, and second, to run our operations responsibly so we have enough revenue to pay our expenses. If we lose sight of our educational mission then we lose our reason for being, we lose the trust of the people we serve, and we eventually lose accreditation and face closure. If we lose sight of our operational mission then our buildings fall into disrepair, we cannot retain good employees, and eventually cannot meet our payroll and again face closure. It's the responsibility of the college's Board of Trustees, myself and my Cabinet to keep both missions in mind as we lead the college, especially when making decisions about increasing tuition.

Raising tuition is never popular because it makes it harder for some students to access the benefits of a good education. But our operational mission cannot be ignored, and raising tuition is sometimes the only responsible course of action. The proposed budget for next year includes an increase, and to understand why requires historical perspective.

Ten years ago, enrollment at Essex was approximately 10,500 students and grew about 2 percent per year. Tuition and fees were $103.25 per credit and increased about 5.3 percent per year until 2010. This was normal. But the Great Recession was not normal: there were 19,500 unemployed in Essex County in 2007; two years later there were almost 38,000, and for the next four years the number stayed between 35,000 and 41,000. These were difficult times, and when people can't find work, or when work hours are reduced, attending college makes a difference because it makes you more competitive in a tough labor market. Enrollment at the college increased 21 percent from fall of 2007 to fall of 2009, and the number of students attending Essex full time increased 29 percent.

Growth is good as it supports our operational mission, but explosive growth is challenging. Our growth provided a great opportunity for the city because, as most readers know, only 18 percent of the citizens of Newark hold a college degree, compared to the national average of 40 percent. One of the positive outcomes of the Great Recession was an increase in the number of citizens pursuing a degree.

Revenue from new students produced a surplus, and Essex went five years without increasing tuition. None of the reports predicted a rapid contraction once the economy recovered and people could find jobs. If we could have seen the future, we would not have gone for five years without raising tuition, because, like every government agency, our fixed costs increase every year: pensions, health insurance, maintenance of our 40-year-old building, contractual salary increases, utilities, etc.

Enrollment stopped increasing after 2010, our annual surpluses disappeared by 2012, and we started using money from the surplus years to balance the budget. This year our enrollment is lower than it was in 2007 and we face a deficit. We have realigned course offerings, left vacant positions unfilled, and reduced part-time employees, but our fixed costs increase regardless. Raising tuition is not only necessary, it is overdue.

To offset rising costs, over 70 percent of Essex students receive financial aid. The governor's 2016 budget increases the Tuition Aid Grant program by $19 million, a 5 percent jump, and the college's budget continues to provide $3 million for scholarships and hardship waivers, even while operating costs were cut $2.5 million.

Leadership's responsibility is to protect and advance the college's educational and operational missions, and even though raising tuition isn't popular, I hope that by understanding the context, our students and everyone in the community who's a friend to Essex County College will recognize that this decision was not taken lightly and is necessary for the college's future.

Newark is steadfast in its commitment to increase the rate of degree attainment to 25 percent by 2025, and Essex County College, in partnership with the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, is working to turn those plans into reality. Essex County College's mission is more relevant today than ever, and we will lead this college into a future that gives every Essex County resident an opportunity to receive a quality education.

Gale E. Gibson, Ed.D., is president of Essex County College.

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