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Rutgers-Camden wants more freshmen, so it changed its financial aid program

Freshman enrollment has gone up more than 50 percent this year, which the school says is because of its new “Bridging the Gap” financial aid program.

Rutgers-Camden freshman Sierra Neal and her mother, Daphne, tour a classroom.
Rutgers-Camden freshman Sierra Neal and her mother, Daphne, tour a classroom.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Some very basic ideas have shifted in Rutgers-Camden's financial aid philosophy this year.

The school used to distribute aid on the basis of both financial need and merit; this year, it uncoupled the two into need-based grants and merit-based scholarships.

As the first freshmen enter under the need-based program, Bridging the Gap, the university said first-year student enrollment has grown more than 50 percent, which it attributes largely to the program.

"When I started, one of the things I saw was we had first-generation, low-income, working-class families, and the way our structure was set up when it came to even grant aid, it was based on having a merit component with it," said Craig Westman, who joined Rutgers-Camden in 2015 as head of enrollment management.

That hurt students who had financial need but didn't qualify for merit aid, Westman said.

Three months after arriving on campus, he announced Bridging the Gap, an aid program based entirely on financial need, using students' adjusted gross family income.

Families making less than $60,000 pay no tuition and fees under the program, with Rutgers-Camden paying any difference — "bridging the gap" — after federal and state aid are applied.

For families making between $60,000 and $100,000, Rutgers-Camden will pay half the family's cost after government aid is applied.

That includes Sierra Neal, 18, one of 470 freshmen who qualify for aid under the program. She decided to set aside her first-choice school — Rutgers-New Brunswick — after hearing about the program.

Last year, as a senior at Willingboro High School, Neal learned about Bridging the Gap from a Rutgers-Camden admissions representative. The program was the first thing she told her mother about when she got home.

Her mother, Daphne, was excited.

"I wanted her to have the best possible education at the best possible school, but at the same time be affordable for us," Neal's mother said.

As a single mother with three children, she said, paying for college has long been a worry. Daphne Neal's older son attends Rutgers-New Brunswick, and a younger son will soon be thinking about college.

She falls in the $60,000 to $100,000 income bracket — enough to pay some college costs, but not all, she said.

"There came a point where I was very extended financially," Daphne Neal said. "I have one income, I can only do so much. I have a mortgage, have a car note, so it's a lot."

Rutgers-Camden's preliminary enrollment data show a 71 percent jump in the number of students in the lowest income bracket. The number in the $60,000 to $100,000 income bracket has grown by about a quarter.

The growth has Rutgers-Camden administrators declaring the program a success. Last week, the school announced it was expanding the program — previously open only to freshman — to transfer students from Camden County College.

"The nice thing about Bridging the Gap is you can manipulate it. You can target one group or another group," said Phoebe A. Haddon, the chancellor of Rutgers-Camden. "You can recruit in a different way, you can market in a different way, so that it doesn't have to stay stationary."

Haddon describes Bridging the Gap as a tool for making her school more affordable and accessible to people who otherwise may never have been able to attend a four-year college.

It's also a powerful tool for shaping enrollment, as seen in this year's growth in freshmen from 434 to about 669.

Only about a third of Rutgers-Camden's incoming students have been freshmen in years past, with transfer students making up the remaining two-thirds.

This year, freshmen make up about 45 percent of incoming students. "The intention is to have more freshmen, yes, so that we can help guide their intellectual and emotional growth through the full college complement," Haddon said.

More freshmen mean more classes — especially general education courses — and more stress on advising, residence halls, parking.

"This year is really important because we need to really start getting an idea of those indirect costs," Westman said.

Right now, the campus is handling the increased enrollment.

"We can probably do pretty well next year. But after that, we really are in need of some additional facilities," Haddon said. "We have, as part of our growth plan, already contemplated that. I think we're going to need some of it a little more quickly than we had planned earlier."

The good news right now, Westman said, is that the program is financially self-sustaining. It has enough participants that the aid it distributes — projected at about $1 million — is outweighed by the additional revenue brought in by those students.

Bridging the Gap is helping Rutgers-Camden extend its reach, Haddon said.

"We can go into high schools and we can go into communities that perhaps we would not have been able to go to with great news, because of cost," she said, "and say, 'This kind of education is available for you. Work hard in high school, work hard K-12, and this will be a place where you can attend.' "