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N.J. colleges ask: Why does Christie want to cut student success program?

“It’s hard to understand why each and every year it’s always fighting for its existence,” said Harvey Kesselman, the president of Stockton University.

To the dismay of many New Jersey colleges, Gov. Christie has proposed a funding cut for a respected financial aid program that provides intensive support for educationally and economically disadvantaged students and has helped tens of thousands graduate since its founding almost 50 years ago.

"It's one of those scratch-your-head moments. We've been down this road before. Nothing's changed; the statistics are sound," said Frederick Keating,  president of Rowan College at Gloucester County.

The budget Christie proposed Feb. 28 lists an 8.4 percent cut to the Educational Opportunity Fund, a $3.6 million decrease from the $42.4 million the program is receiving this year. The Legislature must approve a budget by July 1.

"It's hard to understand why each and every year it's always fighting for its existence," said Harvey Kesselman, president of Stockton University.

A Treasury spokesman pointed to increases in other financial aid programs, such as Tuition Aid Grants, and said Christie's proposal, which offers flat funding for direct aid to colleges and universities, is in line with those of previous years.

College administrators said they once again would mobilize EOF students and alumni to appeal to lawmakers to fund their programs. They'll turn out for budget hearings planned across the state, including one Tuesday at Rowan College at Gloucester County in Deptford.

"Sometimes people just need to be reminded," said Maralyn Mason, the director of Stockton's EOF program.

"It would be really good at some point if this type of activity did not happen," she said. "It would be nice, but that is not the case, and we have to fight the good fight."

Created in 1968, the EOF program aims to help low-income students from academically underperforming school districts — students who show potential to succeed in college but otherwise might not be admitted or even apply — by providing additional services. There are about 13,000 students at EOF programs at 41 colleges and universities in New Jersey.

Each EOF program differs slightly, but at most colleges and universities students receive a small monetary grant, attend a freshman summer program to help acclimate them to campus, work one-on-one with EOF advisers throughout college who track academic and career progress, and attend a variety of workshops and events focused on "soft skills" such as time management and organization.

It's a proven formula, advocates say, that requires intensive focus on the neediest students.

"It's not just about getting a degree, it's about ensuring they're successful adults as well," said Marsha Besong, Rutgers-Camden's EOF director. "The program really is to give students who would not normally be able to attend school to be able to persist to graduation."

In Rutgers-Camden's EOF freshman summer program last summer, Tre'von Walker, 18, wrote his first college paper and realized he needed help. He had good ideas, the professor said, but they were disorganized.

"I realized, wow, I coasted through high school, but college is no joke. I need to get on top of this," said Walker, a freshman accounting major from Camden. "I never really revised my own papers, but in college I do all the time — I read it over once or twice."

Keating, who chaired a state commission on college affordability, said the panel had aggressively examined the program and found no holes — except for funding challenges.

This is the sixth year Christie has proposed $38.8 million for EOF. The Legislature at first used that number, but in recent years has increased the program's funding, making this latest budget the third consecutive that proposes a cut.

"The [fiscal year 2018] proposed funding for the EOF program is consistent with previous budget proposals and zeros out the FY17 increase that was added in the Legislature's counter budget from last year," Treasury spokesman Willem Rijksen wrote in a statement.

Democratic lawmakers said they would again try to restore funding to the program.

"The administration has consistently proposed decreasing EOF funding and we've been successful in making sure these funds don't get cut," State Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D., Hudson), the chair of the Higher Education Committee, said in a statement.

School administrators noted the high graduation rates for EOF students, especially compared with low-income, first-generation students who are not in the EOF program or similar students at other states.

"For the small investment, the outcomes are just so extraordinary," said R. Barbara Gitenstein, the president of the College of New Jersey.

And several said the alternative — students not graduating, or not entering college at all — would be worse for the student, their families, and the larger community.

"It doesn't just help one student, it helps multiple generations," said Penny McPherson-Myers, associate vice president for diversity and organizational effectiveness at Rowan University.

Jasmarie Arce, 23, from Pennsauken, first entered EOF as a community college student at what is now Rowan College at Burlington County. She continued as a transfer student to Rutgers-Camden and is now receiving a graduate EOF grant as a social work master's student at Rutgers-Camden.

"I would be a completely different person, honestly," she said.

Former Gov. Thomas H. Kean Sr. — like Christie a Republican — said creating the EOF program, as a freshman legislator, was his proudest accomplishment in government. He called for a funding increase.

"It would be a crime to cut that, of all things in the budget," he said. "If you can take somebody's life and fundamentally change it, and give them an opportunity through hard work to succeed, that's what this country is supposed to be all about."