Asm. Webber: Take a Cue from Purdue University and Freeze College Tuition in NJ

Congratulations, Graduate! You have a diploma … and you’re $29,000 in debt. The Institute for College Access & Success reports 70 percent of New Jersey college students have loans, and the amount of those loans has increased 40 percent in just a decade. Purdue University, which was confronted with the same problem, froze tuition for four years, cut costs by combining administrative jobs, streamlining food service and partnering with Amazon to lower textbook costs in order to combat the problem. How has it worked there and could it work here? Assemblyman Jay Webber wrote an op-ed for about what New Jersey stands to learn from the Purdue model.

Purdue University, under President Mitchell Daniels, has kept tuition levels frozen for the last four years. The university set the tuition level around the budgets of families instead of families coming up to meet school’s tuition. Can Purdue’s model be implemented at Rutgers?

“I hope so,” said Webber. “I think they’ve done a great job out there and certainly the president of Purdue, Mitch Daniels, needs to be congratulated. He simply put tuition payers first — the students and parents — and said that Purdue is going to set its tuition levels around its families’ budgets and not make the families fit their budgets around Purdue’s wishes. It seems to be working out there and I hope Rutgers and our other state institutions here in New Jersey can take their cue from what seems to be working very well out there.”

New Jersey ranks near the bottom of the list in terms of state funding to higher education with funding being cut 22 percent in 10 years. When asked if a tuition freeze would be possible, Webber notes that before Daniels was the president of Purdue University, he was the governor of Indiana and had cut aid to higher education.

“Higher education overall in this country has seen funding since the ’60s increase almost tenfold. So it’s not a matter of not getting enough subsidies from government, it’s a matter of living within our means, recognizing that families simply can’t afford to continue to pay ever higher tuition and fees and eventually the cycle has to stop,” he said.

Webber also says it’s not a matter of cutting the fat in higher education budgets, where some administrators and presidents can make quite hefty salaries. He says it’s more a matter of exercising restraint in higher education budgets and becoming more efficient.

“As President Daniels said at Purdue, it’s not like there’s a place where there’s this lump of fat that you have to cut out. It’s like a cow — it’s marbled all throughout. What you have to do is I think set goals, set incentives and exercise strong leadership and say ‘here’s what we’re going to do, for one year, just one year at Rutgers, we’re going to go for a 0 percent increase. We’re going to give our families a break and say we’re just not going to do it.’ And then you can form your spending to that goal and that’s what they’re doing out in Indiana. If we’re not doing it here in New Jersey, I think we need answers as to why,” Webber said.

But with budget woes in Trenton and Gov. Chris Christie proposing to cut nearly $38 million in direct aid to schools, or what comes out to about a 5 percent drop from last year, how would that affect schools being able to implement Purdue’s system? Webber says it doesn’t have to do with government subsidies — the focus is on the university.

“This isn’t about what the government can subsidize, it’s about what university leadership is going to set as a goal and what it’s going to accept as a standard. If our leadership in New Jersey says we’re going to do a 0 percent increase and we’re going to freeze tuition, well some department is going to have to cut their spending. Administrators are going to find some efficiencies,” he said.

The impact of student debt goes beyond creating financial woes for families and students, according to Webber. It also has a negative effect on entrepreneurship and careers, which can be crippling to fresh, young minds that are ready to be put to work.

“We really have to start considering that students who graduate from college at age 23, 24, 25 with fresh ideas and the benefit of a world-class education from NJIT or Rutgers can often make their marks on the world pretty early if they have the freedom and flexibility to be entrepreneurs and to take risks,” he said. “But too often with $29,000 or more in student loans hanging over their head, living in their old bedrooms, they’re not making their marks on the world, they’re lowering their sights in the job market just to get enough income to pay the bills. The ever-escalating tuition cost drives student debt. Student debt keeps entrepreneurs from taking risks and really improving New Jersey’s economy and we really need to encourage our young people to take risks and become young entrepreneurs.”