Below is the written Testimony of Eugene J. Cornacchia, Ph.D., President, Saint Peter’s University submitted to the Assembly Budget Committee on April 25, 2022 advocating for the 14 private higher education institutions in our sector. The oral testimony given by Dr. Cornacchia was a condensed version of the following statement.
Thank you, Chairwoman Pintor Marin and all the members of the Assembly Budget Committee for the opportunity to present testimony on behalf of Saint Peter’s University and the other 13 nonprofit, public-mission independent colleges and universities in New Jersey.
Five weeks ago, I was preparing to attend the first NCAA tournament game that the Saint Peter’s men’s basketball team had played since 2011. Over 11 days our student-athletes and coaches captured the attention of New Jersey and the nation by first taming the second seed Kentucky Wildcats, then outracing the Murray State Racers, and downing the Purdue Boilermakers to reach the Elite 8. During this epic and magical run, our team prepared tirelessly for every challenge with the level of grit, character and determination that has defined Saint Peter’s for 150 years. The world has now learned what Peacocks can do when given the chance. On behalf of the entire Saint Peter’s community, I want to thank our political and community leaders as well as the citizens of Jersey City and the State of New Jersey for their support and encouragement.
It is a pleasure to be here in this committee room, in person as we return to normal, for the Legislature’s consideration of the Governor’s FY 2023 budget proposal. You will certainly hear from my colleagues that life on our campuses is returning to normal as well, and we anticipate that the fall 2022 academic year will be even “more normal.”
New Jersey’s 14 nonprofit independent institutions enrolled approximately 63,000 undergraduate and graduate students in fall semester 2021. Our colleges and universities provide opportunities for students to find the best academic and social blend to enhance individual learning right here in New Jersey. In fact, according to Saint Peter’s most recent Community Impact Report, more than two-thirds of our graduates continue to live in and contribute to the economic growth and well-being of New Jersey.
The overall income, ethnic, racial and first-generation diversity of our students mirrors and frequently exceeds the overall diversity at the public institutions, reflecting our state’s diversity. Many of our independent institutions are some of the most diverse in the state. While overall minority enrollment at our member institutions is 35%, undergraduate minority enrollment is even greater at 40%. At Saint Peter’s, a Hispanic Serving Institution, more than 80% of our undergraduates are Black, Indigenous and People of Color.
Our colleges and universities are the only small colleges in the state. Eleven of our campuses have an undergraduate enrollment that is smaller than the smallest state institution, eight are less than half that size, and seven are one-third that size. This smaller size results in a faculty-to-student ratio that is 25% less than the public institutions. We all know that some students require a smaller institution to excel.
Independent schools offer financial accessibility. Our colleges and universities provide more than $1 billion in institutional grant aid to undergraduate students resulting in more than 15% of independent college students in New Jersey paying NOTHING and another 27% paying less than $10,000 in tuition and mandatory fees in 2018-19 due to federal, state and the institutional aid that we offer.
At Saint Peter’s, 65% of our students qualify as low income or Pell eligible. We recently announced our Gateway for All Scholarship Program, a zero tuition promise for New Jersey residents who meet qualifying criteria including those from households with an income of $65,000 or less and an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) that is below $5,846. This initiative is for new first-year students and new transfer students beginning last fall.
Our campuses directly employ more than 20,000 people with thousands more working for contractors such as food service, bookstores and the like across all counties of the State while generating more than $4 billion of economic activity. It is one of the many reasons to return to in-person education. We care deeply about our communities and provide not only educational opportunities but help meet the State’s workforce needs as part of the economic engine for recovery in the days and years ahead.
New Jersey’s economic engine needs a robust research and innovation ecosystem. With three research institutions and other institutions involved in research and STEM education, our sector is an important component of the research and innovation economy. In addition to groundbreaking research, we also confer a larger percentage of science and technology degrees as compared to our overall proportion of higher education enrollment.
As we move forward from the impacts of COVID-19 that began over two years ago, we can all be proud of how we responded to this unprecedented health crisis, which also had a tremendous financial impact on our students and our institutions. Our mission now is to move forward in delivering the educational experience that our students want and need while learning many lessons from the pandemic from both a health perspective and an educational delivery perspective.
At some point, there will be time for a retrospective review of how the higher education community dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, but I am proud to say that I can assure you that all decisions that were made have been based on the health and safety of our students and their families, our faculty and staff and our neighbors.
Fall 2021 was a return to primarily in-person learning allowing our students the higher education experience that they have come to expect and deserve – one that encompasses both their educational and social development.
Overall, our fourteen institutions had a decline in undergraduate enrollment of 2.4% in Fall 2021 as compared to a decline of 4.3% in Fall 2020. There were some institutions with increases while some continued declines.
Since the fall of 2020, the impact on lower income and historically disadvantaged communities has been greater and enrollment declines for these students have been greater than the overall decline, especially among Latinx populations. We have seen the same trends nationally. We are using creative methods to reach these students. This potentially lost generation can have a profound long-term impact on the widening wealth and equity gap between white and of-color populations.
Another post-pandemic issue on the horizon for higher education is the effect it has had on students who will be graduating from high school this June and next June as well. We know there has been a learning loss due to students being out of the classroom for what will be over a year. We also know that in some districts there has likely been limited interaction with guidance counselors and other staff who assist students in navigating the college search process.
Some students who enter college in September 2021 and September 2022 may be less prepared than in the previous years and many will likely need additional services to help ensure a successful academic experience. The pandemic’s impact on all areas of our society including higher education will likely be felt for several years.
Looking ahead to the proposed FY 2022 budget by Governor Murphy, we would like to focus on three funding areas: 1) operating aid, 2) Tuition Assistance Grants (TAG), and the 3) Educational Opportunity Fund. We would also like to focus on the potential expansion of the Garden State Guarantee program to assist students who choose to attend an independent institution to continue their education.
Operating Aid Provided Under the Independent College and University Assistance Act (ICUAA)
We thank the Governor and the Legislature for providing the $7 million in operating aid under the Independent College and University Assistance Act in FY 2022. This represented the largest amount of aid provided to our sector since $16.5 million was provided in FY 2010.
Our request to the Governor was for a $12 million direct line-item appropriation, an increase of $5 million, as a phase-in back to at least the FY 2010 level of $16.5 million and eventually increasing to $28 million which represents full funding of the statutory formula.
We request that the Legislature support the $1.5 million that the Governor has proposed, and we would also request that you consider an additional increase of $5 million. We have increased the request due to the unprecedented inflation that is and will be impacting costs on our campuses.
This increased funding would help offset increased inflationary costs and residual costs and revenue losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
This funding increase will also help with other increased costs, including a considerable number of laws enacted that add an administrative burden and increased costs. Past actions to provide earned sick leave for all employees and increases in the minimum wage have been good for working families but have also increased upward pressure on tuition.
Over the past decade, our institutions have needed to increase counseling and mental health services to meet the demands of students. Studies and surveys have shown that the COVID pandemic has increased the importance of this issue on our campuses.
Investment in career services is also an increased cost in an area that students and parents expect us to provide, as well they should. The increased funding may also be used to deal with the significant deferred maintenance and thus create jobs and economic activity to make needed upgrades.
Our institutions are also ready to use a portion of additional increases in funding to provide even more financial aid to our students thus allowing, even more, to attend with no cost when state, federal and institutional aid is considered.
We hope that this level of increase would be provided for the next two years to restore the funding level to the FY 2010 level of approximately $16.5 million and then for subsequent years until the formula reaches the pre-recession level of approximately $28 million.
On a per-student basis, the current $7 million represents $258 per New Jersey resident student. The proposed $8.5 million in FY 2023 would represent $314 per student based on current enrollment, and our requested $13.5 million would represent $498 per student. In 2010, we received $626 per student before Governor Christie eliminated the funding entirely. For comparative purposes, the per-student operating aid in FY 2022 for four-year public colleges and universities (excluding four state research institutions) is $4,241. The statutory formula for our aid program would provide $1,060 per student or only 25% of the per-student amount for four-year public institutions.
This $8.5 million in operating aid represents the only sector-wide aid for the nonprofit independent colleges and universities that is not student financial aid. For comparative purposes, the public four-year colleges and universities receive over $1.8 billion in direct operating aid and support for fringe benefits.
Tuition Aid Grants (TAG)
We thank the Administration and the Legislature for your continued support of the Tuition Aid Grant (TAG) program.
The Tuition Aid Grant Program was established in New Jersey to provide access for low- and middle-income families to send their children to a college, chosen by the student, in New Jersey. It is a student-focused program, not an institutional program. The program has been considered a great success and is a model for the rest of the nation.
Choice is essential for students because the size of the institution, campus culture, geographic location and other factors all have an impact on student success and achievement.
In the 2020-21 academic year, approximately 11,000 students attending our nonprofit independent colleges and universities received nearly $118 million in TAG awards that allowed them to choose the institution that best fits their educational needs.
We are pleased that the Governor’s proposed budget provides sufficient funding to maintain TAG award levels for all existing and new students. We are concerned, however, that the proposed budget does not provide any funding for at least a 2% across-the-board increase in award levels. If no added funding is provided this would represent the third consecutive year without any increase in award levels.
We request that you consider providing approximately $9 million to provide for an increase of at least 2% for ALL grant awards. This increase would ensure that the “buying” power of the TAG awards is not further diminished for these low-income and most at-risk students. We further request that any increase in funding be allocated proportionally among students regardless of the type of institution that they attend.
If additional funds are available, we also request that they be used for other initiatives recommended by HESAA such as eliminating the federal Earned Income Credit in income calculations for students and families. This change would make more families eligible for the program and would increase grant awards for many families as well.
With only $8.5 million in operating aid to the nonprofit independent colleges and universities, TAG funding represents almost all the state support provided to independent colleges and the students who choose to attend them.
Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF)
The Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) programs have a proven record of supporting students from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. We all agree that this program provides the greatest benefit to students not only through grants but, equally important, support services.
We support the Governor’s proposal to increase funding by $1 million for grants to EOF eligible students.
We also request that you provide a similar $1 million increase in the student support services portion of the EOF program, which provides services such as counseling, tutoring and developmental coursework that are essential to their success. It will be even more important this year since many of these students have had their last years of high school disrupted by the pandemic and may need even more support services during the summer and their first year.
Nearly 1,900 EOF students chose to attend ICUNJ institutions with aid totaling approximately $4.7 million in the 2020-2021 academic year, an average of $2,500 per student. Institutions also received nearly $3.4 million in funding for support services.
The return on the investment in the EOF program is well documented in assisting students to become successful in their studies and their future careers.
Garden State Guarantee
Last year, as the Garden State Guarantee (GSG) program was in the development stage, we raised concerns that at times students and parents may choose the “free” option over the option that may be best for their educational and social development needs. As noted, before, our fourteen members strive to keep the cost to students and their families as low as possible.
Now that GSG is a reality at the four-year public institutions, we request that the Governor and Legislature consider expanding it to independent colleges and universities like the New York State program that also includes independent institutions. Grants like those provided to students attending public institutions should be provided to students attending independent institutions IF the institution provides a “no-cost” option similar to the provisions of GSG. As I noted previously, Saint Peter’s initiated our Gateway for All Scholarship Program in Fall 2021.
We believe that allowing the money to follow the student will allow students and their families to make the best decision for themselves on continuing their education.
Thank you in advance for the consideration of our funding requests for the FY 2023 budget. Attached is a one-page summary of our funding requests, a one-pager with data on our sector, a map showing all 14 of our institutions, and a chart reflecting the history of the operating aid provided by the State.
As we move forward, we look forward to partnering with Governor Murphy, Secretary Bridges and the Legislature on moving higher education forward, including continuing our work to implement the New Jersey State Plan for Higher Education – Where Opportunity Meets Innovation.
Our 14 nonprofit independent colleges and universities are an important component of the overall higher education system in the State, and we look forward to continuing the partnerships to provide choices for students to stay in New Jersey, continue to develop its workforce and grow our economy.
As we return this fall, we invite you to visit our campuses and meet with our students firsthand. They are our strongest ambassadors, and the rich diversity of their backgrounds and experiences give our institutions strength and purpose.