Rutgers’ Virtual Tuition Hearing Brings a Clear Call for More Relief

Beyond freezing undergraduate tuition and fees, potential for continued online learning had many students asking for additional reductions
Credit: Tomwsulcer via Creative Commons CC0-1.0
College Avenue campus, Rutgers University-New Brunswick

Rutgers University’s virtual open hearing on 2020-2021 tuition, fees, and housing and dining charges on May 19 had its technology glitches, but the message to the administration and Board of Governors (BOG) was clear: Do more for students than freeze undergraduate tuition and fees.

At the annual session, the university presented a financial overview of its expenses, revenues, financial aid distribution, and tuition and fees. The public’s comments — mostly from students, but also parents and faculty — will be given to the BOG in advance of their vote on Rutgers’ next fiscal year budget in June. To the frustration of some attendees, the hearing was not a question-and-answer session, so questions that were asked were recorded, but received no response.

On April 24, Rutgers University president Robert Barchi announced several proposals for reducing the financial effects of COVID-19 on the university. Among them: a freeze on undergraduate tuition and fees, which for in-state, full-time students ranges from $14,826 to $15,407 before financial aid. (The amount varies based on the campus and program.)

The hearing’s nearly two dozen participants applauded the proposed freeze — something that has been requested for years to reduce the financial burden on students — but the potential for continued online learning had many students asking for reductions, especially in fees supporting on-campus amenities and services. Campus fees, for example, support health centers, buses and recreation centers, while course fees cover equipment and supply costs. Rutgers has yet to announce whether fall classes will be held in-person, remotely or a combination of the two. The most likely scenario, Barchi has said, is a hybrid of in-person and remote education.

Daniel Ackerman, a part-time MBA student, said his spring semester experiences influenced his decision to take one online class this summer instead of two. “I knew the quality of the course wouldn’t be there — I wouldn’t be getting my money’s worth,” he said, noting that fees are accounting for nearly 20% of his summer class bill.

Other students echoed Ackerman’s frustration. Lingjun Song, a music student, said her learning experiences were “greatly compromised” this spring, as she was unable to access pianos in campus practice rooms, receive real-time feedback after playing, or participate in concerts. “The second half of the semester was completely wasted,” she said.

Rutgers revenue under pressure, hiring freeze  

The comments followed a presentation from David B. Moore, chief budget officer and assistant vice president, financial planning and budgeting. In fiscal year 2020, student tuition and fees accounted for 29% of the university’s revenue, with the remainder composed of charges for services rendered by Rutgers health care providers (21%), state appropriations (20%), grants and contracts (13%), and collectively, auxiliary enterprise, federal and state student aid, gifts and endowments, and other sources (17%).

Rutgers attempts to keep rates down as much as possible while continuing to provide an excellent education, noted Moore, but its revenue sources are under pressure. “While we remain grateful to the state for its ongoing support of the university, state appropriations have not kept pace with our growth,” he said, noting that 10 years ago, they accounted for 26% of revenue compared with today’s 20%. Federal spending reductions are also affecting revenue streams from grants and contracts.

On the expense side, salaries and benefits account for 66% of the university’s spend, while 9% goes to financial aid, and 25% to consumables, service contracts, construction costs and food services. Rutgers plans to curb spending through a hiring freeze, bans on discretionary spending and travel, and other actions, while using the university’s reserves (it has $583 million in unrestricted reserves, including $74 million from last year) as a source of funding.

Regarding tuition and fees, Moore juxtaposed the university’s five-year average of a 2.2% increase with comparable schools for each of Rutgers’ three campuses. The New Brunswick campus fell within the middle of its peer group, which included Big Ten competitors Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin (all had lower increases) and schools such as Texas A&M and Oregon (which had higher increases). The Newark and Camden campuses’ increases were on the lower range of their peer groups. Still, compared with New Jersey’s senior public institutions, Rutgers tuition and fees at any campus are among the most expensive; only New Jersey Institute of Technology and The College of New Jersey’s are higher.

Moore’s presentation later drew comments from David Hughes, an anthropology professor and treasurer of the Rutgers American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers faculty and graduate student union. First, though, he called for elimination of a $100 technology fee per online course, which makes online courses more expensive than in-person classes but with reduced overhead. “It makes no sense at all,” he said.

Hughes asked for more transparency from the administration about savings incurred while classes were held remotely this spring. “The administration has been very eager to talk about losses in revenue, but there are also cost savings,” he said. Employees aren’t traveling, commencement will be done online, sports were cancelled, and utility costs should be down. “The unions have been asking very explicitly [about cost savings] and you’ve been refusing to give us the figures. Nothing that you say about the financial impact of the virus has any credibility at all unless you give net figures,” he said.