Where Is the Money Going? The Student Activity Fund’s Bills, Budgets and Benefits at TCNJ

Amanda Felten, a sophomore education major at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), holds four different jobs to pay for her tuition. She hosts high school tours as a College Ambassador, leads incoming freshmen as an Orientation Leader, assists with files at the Office of Student Involvement and takes care of crying children as a babysitter.

With a jam-packed schedule filled with exams, presentations and clubs galore, Felten is often exhausted, stressed and pressured for the next paycheck.

“The ‘broke college student’ narrative is definitely one that rings true in my life,” she says. “My student loans will be following me for a huge portion of my life and these constant expenses seem impossible to ever pay off.”

Felten is not the only student who faces this dilemma. Not to mention, the direction these hefty payments go in is unclear. 

Tuition is an integral part of college life. While on tour with prospective students and their families, over 150 College Ambassadors at TCNJ partake in campus tradition by relaying this joke when they arrive at Green Hall, home to the Office of Student Accounts: “Do you know why this building is called Green Hall? Because that’s where the money goes!” Yet, in a survey with the entire program, not one person said they knew, with confidence, precisely how their tuition is distributed.

Compared to the price of a movie ticket and that of a Target t-shirt, college tuition is not cheap. Students and parents typically send tuition installments without much thought (after all, this big sticker price goes toward education!). But, when parents of students attending TCNJ were asked how that daunting dollar sign is divided, they resorted to assumptions.

“I think the majority of the funds are going to pay professor salaries and to construction to build new buildings,” Marie Kelly, parent of a sophomore accounting major, said.

John Castronovo, parent of a sophomore marketing major, echoed Kelly’s assumption, “While the annual cost to attend TCNJ is roughly $34,000, I assume that a significant portion of tuition fees are used to pay the salaries and benefits of administrative back-office personnel, campus infrastructure and student support programs.”

“Part of the tuition, I think, is going toward faculty and administrator salaries,” another parent of a senior finance major repeated.

According to the TCNJ admissions website, New Jersey residents must commit to the price tag of about $30,000 per year – with the out-of-state fee at nearly $43,000 – excluding room and board and scholarship offers.

Money Magazine ranked TCNJ as No. 2 public school in the 2019 “Best Colleges For Your Money” category. Acclaim was also granted to the College for having the highest average freshman retention rate (94 percent), according to the website. Based on only six percent of students saying “peace out” to the College after their first year, it is safe to say that students are not only content with the value of their education but the value of their campus as well – its facilities, the social events and their overall college experience.

Jennie Sekanics, one of the College’s admissions counselors, is at the forefront of family interaction and offers her take on how tuition is a key component of the College’s progressive enrollment.

“Parents and students certainly want to see a high return on investment and are most concerned with outcomes [and] the Money Magazine ranking solidifies TCNJ as a school that creates the foundation for our graduates’ success,” she notes. “Parents and students respond positively to TCNJ’s price tag given the high-quality education and experience the school is proven to offer.”

Even though a description of fees is explained on the Office of Student Accounts Web site, students do not completely understand how their tuition payments are going toward their academics and on-campus involvement.

Based on one student’s December 2019 invoice, roughly $150 was the amount he had to pay for the Student Activity Fund. These student funds are managed by the Student Finance Board (SFB), “specifically for the SFB to allocate towards events, concerts, recreation and more,” according to its website.

With roughly 6,650 undergraduates, the yearly budget SFB works with is almost $2 million, Svanik Shirodkar, SFB Executive Assistant, confirms.

But just because students have $2 million to work with, they are not blowing the lump sum on neon light-themed parties each evening. According to the organization’s contract, students must disclose an appropriate reason for their proposals, like increasing club recruitment or promoting donations to charity.

An adored organization that strengthens campus unity – and receives ample SFB funding – is the College Union Board (CUB) which spearheads many educational, cultural and recreational activities. Some of these events include the much-anticipated concerts each semester; comedy shows and guest speakers; and off-campus trips to places like Boston, NYC and the Poconos, the organization’s website publishes.

Most CUB events are free for students, with last year’s hyped-up AJR concert only $10 for admission.

“CUB is allocated a total amount of around $900,000 for their annual budget,” Shirodkar says. “If there are leftover funds from the collection of Student Activity Fee payments, the money gets washed back into the reserves which we can pull from if needed.” Josh Laidig, CUB’s Finance Director, confirms that this budget covers about 75 events each year including Funival, Fall and Spring concerts, comedy shows, lectures, smaller-scale live shows, themed events at the Student Center and travel trips.

CUB is only one of over 150 organizations on campus and, though a student may not be a member of a particular club, he can fully enjoy a night out to watch a guest speaker. This is especially true if students are fans of science and Bill Nye (the science guy), as SFB funded the renowned scientist to speak at a Physics Club-sponsored event with $84, 217.38. 

“The entire Student Finance Board has the ultimate say when it comes to specific amounts to fund a certain proposal,” says Rajas Karajgikar, SFB Junior Representative. “If something does not add up right, based on funding guidelines, then we will make a motion to partially fund some parts of the proposal and take a vote on it.”

Yet at the last SFB meeting of the Fall 2019 semester – when the funding for the upcoming Bill Nye event was voted on – SFB was at the brink of facing constitutional violations. This meeting opened with a motion to suspend all bylaws, now permitting SFB to allocate more than 65 percent of the Student Activity Fee in the first semester, if need be, according to The Signal.  

“After the Physics Club’s presentation we realized that students would love the event so after tabling it initially, it passed the second time,” Karajgikar explains. “We can suspend the bylaws, but we only do it if we believe it will maximize student benefit as a whole – there’s no doubt in my mind that the Bill Nye event will be hugely successful.”

Laidig highlights that, because of SFB’s contribution, CUB can give back to the entire campus community.

“CUB events enhance the college experience by providing opportunities for students to form connections outside of the classroom,” he says. “These events are an outlet for stress and provide students unique experiences that they may not have otherwise, like seeing David Dobrik or traveling to the New Jersey Wolf Preserve.”

Bobby Bargna, a senior accounting major and member of professional business fraternity Delta Sigma Pi, commented on SFB funding toward its e-board retreat and motivational guest speaker, Gian Paul Gonzalez.

“Although I didn’t go to the events, I noticed that the comradery among our brothers has flourished, reflecting much positive reinforcement in the family – all thanks to SFB funding,” Bargna said.

Because Bargna has seen value because of the organization’s funding, he has an open-minded approach to how his tuition fees are being dispersed. 

“I am a three-time senator for Student Government here on campus and love the campus community,” Bargna adds. “So, I am unopposed to the Student Finance Board allocating funds to different organizations – like cultural-based organizations – especially when they hold public events designed to educate the student body.”

Like Bargna, many of these SFB-funded events are enjoyed by various students of the College community. Seeing firsthand how his organization plays a vital role in allocating aid to campus organizations, Karajgikar explains how he – and his SFB team – frequently attend the events they helped bring to life.

“We will make efforts to attend various events that we fund – you will usually find someone from SFB at all the large events,” Karajgikar says. “When I wasn’t on SFB, I recognized many board members who attended Indian Student Association events, I remember seeing them. That made the funding process to the establishment of the event come full circle, even before I was involved with SFB.”

Similarly, Victoria Vricella, a track athlete at the College, believes that students’ tuition payments are adequately dispersed. 

“I feel like everything is organized the way it is supposed to be,” Vricella said. “As long as I see funding going toward athletics, then I have no issue with the Student Finance Board funding other organizations I am not a part of.”

Vricella is not the only one who prioritizes athleticism-based funding. Dessa Reed, last year’s SFB junior representative and College athleticism advocate, speaks to how SFB plays a role in sports funding. 

“We help sports team fundraise and we help keep track of their funds and help allocate that,” Reed says. “Even though they fundraise themselves, they rely on the Student Activity Fund for some of their programs.”

Similarly, Greek life benefits with student payments to the Student Activity Fund, helping the College’s Panhellenic Association host an event featuring motivational speaker Brittany Piper. The event won “TCNJ Program of the Year” and had a turnout of over 300 people, Ally Haddock, the Associations’ programming chair, informed.

“SFB worked with us to pay Brittany Piper for her attendance,” Haddock noted. “Without them, we would not have been able to put together this awesome event and better educate our Panhellenic women on mental health initiatives.”

Like organizations on campus, academic departments continually plan events for students to enjoy. Dean Maurice Hall of the College’s School of Arts and Communication details how his School uses student funding to host guest speaker events.

“One part of our funding is that we get funds from donors who will give money without specific restrictions or conditions and that is often part of the Dean’s discretionary fund,” he states. “On top of that, we rent out our facilities – Kendall Hall, Music Hall – so when we bring guest speakers to campus, we touch upon different funds.”

These different funds have brought award-winning journalist Hallie Jackson and renowned physicist Brian Greene to campus, both of which had only a few empty seats in the auditorium for their lecture series. 

“What we have been trying to do with these lecture series is to bring to campus people who are the most accomplished in their field,” Dean Hall says. “The fact that they are able to give our students career advice from this standpoint is incredible – Hallie Jackson even met with our students after her presentation.”

While SFB is beneficial to students firsthand, the Student Activity Fund only disperses a small fraction of a student’s annual tuition. College President Kate Foster explained in a Strategic Finance Fundamentals meeting that tuition is divided into four main categories: (1) on people – compensation and benefits for faculty and staff; wages and aid for students, (2) on things – services; supplies; utilities; buildings and grounds, (3) on programs – travel; memberships; community efforts, and (4) on obligations – debt service.

The Barnes & Noble location at Campus Town – the nearby hub for College social life – has recently adopted its “Get It Card” payment option in 2019 where, instead of using cash or credit card, students can now use money from their school ID to pay for coffee, textbooks and other items.

Based on a College Board report, the average college student spends over $1,000 just on books and study materials alone, not including a daily Starbucks coffee for about three dollars.

Gabi Cohen, a senior marketing major and Starbucks barista at the Campus Town location, serves a positive perspective aside from the countless iced lattes she brews.

“A great part about paying with Get It points is it allows students to only worry about having their ID instead of an ID and credit card,” she says. “It also lets parents help budget with their kids as there is no way to spend more than is on the card – which is especially helpful for freshmen who are just starting to use their own money for things.”

While not one “TCNJ Mom” or “TCNJ Dad” assumed part of the College’s tuition was allocated to student involvement, distributing finances while having a keen eye to student demand has proven to be especially beneficial to the academic community, enlightening campus spirit from Trenton Hall to the Education Building.

“We are looking to implement financial plans that are sustainable, both on and off-campus,” Dr. Foster declared. “This is how we will propel our students in our campus community, both undergraduates and graduate students.”