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Special report: Enrollment rates drop drastically at Camden, Newark campuses

First-year enrollment rates at the University's Camden and Newark campuses declined in the last year by 30.3 percent and 8.2 percent, respectively. – Photo by Rutgers University

Enrollment data released from University President Jonathan Holloway’s office revealed that first-year enrollment for the upcoming school year sharply decreased in Rutgers’ Camden and Newark campuses.

Though many universities have faced a decline in first-year enrollment since the pandemic, according to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, no drop has been as large as that of the University’s Camden campus, which is down by more than 30 percent.

Concurrently, Newark experienced a first-year enrollment decrease of 8.2 percent while New Brunswick’s rate increased by 9.9 percent. The overall University’s first-year enrollment increased by 3.3 percent.

In a letter to Holloway, the Rutgers chapter of the American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) expressed concern that the enrollment drop in Camden and Newark will result in the University canceling classes due to a lack of students.

The union said that mass class cancellations could cause students to be unable to fulfill graduation course requirements. In its letter, the AAUP-AFT requested central administration to allow classes in Camden and Newark to run even with fewer students attending.

Additionally, the union asked that neither campus face budget cuts due to lower enrollment, especially considering how net University-wide first-year enrollment, and thus tuition revenue, will increase.

“If classes are canceled because of this administrative failure, students may not graduate on time, forcing them to pay extra tuition and miss opportunities for employment that could affect their ability to support their families,” the AAUP-AFT said in its letter.

In response to the AAUP-AFT’s requests, Holloway said that University administration is focused on preventing hurdles to students’ degree completions and deciding what classes will run will be “questions of educational judgment.”

“Chancellor (Nancy) Cantor and Chancellor (Antonio D.) Tillis have made clear to me that they and their deans are committed to avoiding any disruption for students in terms of graduating,” he said in his response. “At the same time, it would not be appropriate to issue a mandate that every class should be run regardless of enrollment.”

In response to The Daily Targum’s request for comment, faculty members at the Newark and Camden campuses expressed their disagreement with the University administration’s non-commitment to keep classes running regardless of enrollment.

Manu Chander, an associate professor in the English Department at Rutgers—Newark and his campus' chapter president of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT, said the central administration’s decision to cancel classes will affect both students attempting to finish their degrees and part-time lecturers working at Rutgers.  

“We very clearly asked that classes not be canceled due to low enrollment and were told that allowing classes to run with fewer students ‘would not be appropriate,’” he said. “Of course, what’s truly inappropriate is canceling classes that students may need to graduate or that adjuncts may need to teach to put food on their tables.”

Keith Green, an associate professor in the English Department at Rutgers—Camden, Africana studies program director and Rutgers AAUP-AFT executive council representative for Camden, said class cancellations will disallow students the opportunity to take courses that spark unexpected interests or foster connections.

Moreover, low enrollment of students may also result in departments being forced to compete with each other for students rather than working together with students, he said.

“(Canceling classes) creates an atmosphere of scarcity that makes it difficult to stay true to our social justice values of equity and transparency,” he said. “It fosters an environment where people and units will be grabbing for resources when we should be working collaboratively.”

Green said that limited resources are already a major issue at Rutgers—Camden and the main cause of the campus’ low enrollment.

The University has been underinvesting in the Camden campus for years, he said, resulting in outdated facilities, a lack of curricular and staff development and underfunding of student resources.

Green said these investment gaps may originate from the University’s Responsibility Center Management (RCM) budget model, which primarily favors Rutgers departments that raise high levels of revenue.

With Rutgers—Camden committed to educating students from low-income or first-generation backgrounds, the campus provides financial aid to the majority of its undergraduates — approximately 74.6 percent during the 2021-2022 academic year.

Compared to University units like New Brunswick, which provided 45.5 percent of its undergraduates with aid that same year, Camden does not generate the same level of revenue from tuition. As such, the campus may be deprioritized by the RCM model, Green said.

The RCM model’s promotion of income generation over the University’s public mission has previously been pointed out by the RCM Review Committee in its five-year review of the system.

Submitted to Holloway in June 2021, the committee’s report said the RCM model’s emphasis on raising revenue can be detrimental to Rutgers units that may not produce high levels of revenue but contribute heavily to the University’s mission and values.

“The (RCM) Committee found that the design of the current model creates a dynamic in which funding for the delivery of non- or low-revenue generating programs and initiatives must constantly be weighed against their effect on the ‘bottom line’ and the potential revenue-generating performance of other programs within the same unit,” the report stated.

When Camden faces issues like low enrollment, it raises less tuition and is less likely to garner central administration’s support — making it difficult to provide the campus’ students with quality support services and physical spaces, Green said.

“The central administration needs to prioritize Camden as a site of development and fulfill its commitment to serving South Jersey and disenfranchised populations,” he said. “Build up the Camden campus, and students will come.”

The central question posed by the AAUP-AFT in its letter to Holloway is: Why did enrollment rates for Camden and Newark drop so extremely this specific year?

In its letter, the AAUP-AFT said its members have heard numerous possible reasons for the enrollment drop, including “a software error that delayed acceptance letters from going out, a further delay in determining financial aid packages, problems with the admission waitlist system that affected Camden and Newark, but not New Brunswick.”

Donna Murch, associate professor in the Department of History at Rutgers—New Brunswick and her campus’ chapter president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, said the University needs to investigate the specific cause for the lack of enrollment.

She said Rutgers needs to provide explanations for why admissions notifications were delayed in going out and why the Newark and Camden campuses were not allowed to start accepting off their applicant waiting list while New Brunswick was. 

In a statement to the Targum, University spokesperson Dory Devlin said Rutgers is in the process of implementing new Oracle student financial planning and customer service management software.

“While the implementation of two new University-wide systems has caused some confusion and delays for students, we continue to work quickly to address the issues and to help students complete their enrollment,” she said.

Devlin added that the majority of admitted students received their financial aid packages in early March and that students admitted later had their packages created at that time.

With respect to waitlist acceptance policies, she said the University does not manage when each campus’s admissions department starts to accept students from their waitlist. 

“Each campus has its own admissions office and can admit students from their waitlist at any time,” she said. “Typically, students are admitted from waitlists between April and July.”

Devlin said Rutgers’ enrollment decline is also linked to larger factors such as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and national trends in college enrollment.

In order to circumvent further decline, she said the University will maintain its test-optional admissions policies and consider adopting the Common Application to streamline the application process.

Lastly, Devlin said that enrollment numbers are still subject to change at this point and that official enrollment numbers will not be finalized until weeks into the fall semester.

Regardless, some see these trends in enrollment as microcosms of larger issues of inequity between campuses — issues that include how the University treats minority students.

Murch said the New Brunswick campus has had a 5 percent increase in total enrollment, which not only places great pressure on the campus’s programs for new students but also demonstrates campus inequity in action.  

“This is the latest example of the ways in which Camden and Newark are denied resources and equity in favor of the New Brunswick campus,” she said. “Given the important role that (Camden and Newark) play in serving large numbers of students of color, this structural disinvestment should be understood through the lens of racialized disinvestment.”

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