Thirteen colleges and universities in New Jersey stand to losing millions in federal funding if a partisan standoff in Congress continues and lawmakers fail to renew $255 million earmarked each year for STEM education at schools with large minority populations across the nation.
The Garden State schools — including New Jersey City University, Rutgers-Newark, Montclair State and William Paterson — receive $47 million each year under the program, which largely targets so-called Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The program expired Sept. 30 and though the remaining funding will roll over into the next year, the impasse on reauthorizing the funds has made planning budgets all the more difficult for officials at the schools.
“If you get the money cut off this year coming, then there are lots of things that won’t happen on our campus that would help support these students,” said Sue Henderson, the president at NJCU, who says between 70% and 80% of her students receive some type of financial aid.
“We’ve gotten over $5 million over the last 4-5 years,” she added. “And it’s gone for not just scholarship money, but something I call supplemental instruction where students sit in a classroom with these students and take notes with them and then work with them after class. It’s gone to help them do research in the summer, it’s gone through tutors.”
Even though both sides say they believe the funding should be extended, it has gotten caught up in the political scrum in Congress.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the education committee in the upper house of Congress, has blocked passage of a House-approved bill that would renew the $255 million for two years, saying he favors instead a comprehensive higher-education bill that would both provide “a permanent solution” to funding the minority-serving schools, while also incorporating other, unrelated reforms, ranging from simplifying the college loan application process to expanding the pool of candidates eligible for federal loans.
“Ensuring that Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other Minority Serving Institutions continue to receive federal funding is something that we all want to do,” Alexander said in a statement issued by his office. “However, instead of a short-term patch we should pass a long-term solution that will provide certainty to college presidents and their students.”
Democrats, meanwhile, accused the Republicans of playing politics in declining to let the bill come to up for a vote.
“How dare this senator, any senator, hold these young people …. hostage for some other political goal,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y. said during a press conference last week. “If this bill were put on the floor … it would pass. And it’s already passed the house. And even President Trump wouldn’t dare veto it.”
New Jersey’s secretary of Higher Education says her department is leaning on the state’s two senators, Democrats Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, to push for passages of the extension. The worry is that less support will be mean a less diverse pool of students.
“We want to make sure that we do all we can to encourage institutions to continue to support students no matter what funding is there,” said Secretary Zakiya Smith Ellis. “But we know the level to which they’ll be able to support students and the kinds of services that they have when they come to campus may be impacted by the fact that this funding’s not there anymore, if it doesn’t get extended.”
“Every time I go somewhere and talk to students they are concerned about affordability,” she added. “They are concerned about whether they’re going to get the classes they need to graduate and they’re concerned about making sure their curriculum is relevant.”
Henderson said that, at her school, the money provides on-campus jobs and extra scholarships. Any NJCU student whose family makes less than $60,000 a year is guaranteed a debt-free degree.
“Half my students are Hispanic, another 23% are black and minority. So, I have a vast majority of my students [who] need this kind of aid,” Henderson added
“There’re a lot of donors who said ‘I’ll give you x amount of money, but I need to see that there’s a match,’” she added. “And these grants were fabulous ways for us to match the money from private donors.”
Federal Education Secretary Betsy Devos has said minority-serving institutions should remember that the standoff does not affect grant money already awarded. But that’s not easing fears about the future among the officials at the schools.