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Blair Horner: Governor Cuomo's Budget For Higher Education

The governor’s budget is based on a huge promise – that he will keep the budget growth to less than 2%.  The governor presents this number as a simple feat, keep to the rate of inflation and he can use some of the revenues for a tax cut.

Of course, the governor’s tax cut – trumpeted as $2 billion – is more rhetoric than reality.  He promises to cut taxes, but in the fine print the amount of that cut hinges on the governor’s prediction that the state can keep spending under 2% growth and that the federal government will shift billions of dollars in Medicaid savings to New York.

But even if the governor is right on both of those predictions, keeping spending under 2% means cuts to important programs.  Last week, the Legislature heard the details of the governor’s higher education proposal.  In a word, cuts.

Over the years, New York has shifted the costs of public college to students and their families. One key way that shift occurred was through the state’s “SUNY 2020” plan.  That plan, among other items, increased tuition at a so-called “rational,” or predictable rate.  As part of that deal, the state promised to maintain its financial commitment to New York’s public colleges and universities.  The plan raised public college tuition at SUNY and CUNY by $300 each year for five years. Cumulatively, tuition at SUNY is expected go up more than 40 percent and CUNY tuition will jump nearly 60 percent by the 2015-2016 academic year.

In this year’s budget, those shifts in paying for public college could be continuing.  The governor proposes cuts of $1 million to CUNY and $2 million to SUNY.  Despite the pledge to maintain support for both SUNY and CUNY as part of the so-called rational tuition plan, the governor’s budget proposal cuts state aid.

If the state doesn’t follow through on its commitment to maintain support, it won’t be the first time something like this happened.  For decades, state law mandated that the government cover 40% of the costs of community colleges.  Yet, in each year’s budget, the state changes that law and pays less than that 40%.  Students and their families are typically called on to make up the difference.

In addition, the governor in this year’s budget cuts other financial aid programs that benefit lower income students.   The governor’s budget cuts financial aid and services for these students by roughly $3.5 million to critical programs, which jeopardizes the role these programs play in college access and success.

Given the importance of a college education in our advanced society, cuts like these are a steep price to pay for the governor’s tax cuts.

Hopefully, the legislature will reject the changes proposed by the governor.  Instead, the state’s final budget should not only restore the governor’s cuts, but expand college opportunities.

Left out of the governor’s budget proposal is a measure designed to help immigrants who are going to college.

The states of Texas, New Mexico, and California have passed legislation that grants undocumented students access to public resources to attend college, similar to New York’s education opportunity programs for low income students and its Tuition Assistance Program.

New York has long recognized the importance of supporting New York’s immigrant students, including funding programs to support English Language Learners and college readiness programs. In 2001, a new law granted New York’s undocumented students in-state tuition rate.

The logical next step is to grant these students access to financial aid.  After all, these undocumented students came here as children.  Investing in these students will help them to succeed, thus helping them as well as the state.

The governor’s plan undermines the access that some students can have to a higher education.  Hopefully, lawmakers will understand that investments now will pay off – enhancing both the state’s finances and its civic life as well.

If they do, the governor’s plan will be rejected and additional measures to expand access will be adopted.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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