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Blair Horner: Grading The Governor's Proposed Higher Education Budget

Like many areas of the governor’s proposed $141 billion-plus state budget, his higher education plans include items that help and others that hurt.

In the governor’s grab bag of policy measures, he advanced a proposal to expand college financial assistance for undocumented immigrants and a loan forgiveness program for some college graduates – both good ideas.

The governor’s plan for loan forgiveness would allow that certain college grads whose starting salaries were less than $50,000 and who were participating in the federal “Pay As You Earn” program, could get their outstanding monthly college loan payments covered by the state.

The program reportedly would cover only about 7,000 graduates, but for those individuals it would help a lot.  And with the nation facing $1.2 trillion in outstanding college debts, this type of program – if expanded – could offer a model on how the states can help curtail massive college debts.  He gets a grade of “A” for that one.

The governor’s plan to provide college financial assistance for eligible undocumented immigrants is a good idea too.  These students are already allowed to pay in-state tuition (if they meet the residency requirements) and so denying them financial aid is simply unfair.  This proposal, also known as the state “DREAM Act,” ends that unfairness.

Inexplicably, the governor has tied approval of that reform with his plan to offer a tuition tax credit to families who children attend private or parochial elementary, middle or high schools.  His plan is designed to help offset those costs for tuition which can be comparable with those paid for college.

Why link a tax credit for K-12 education tuition with financial assistance for undocumented college students attending college?  There is no real policy rationale; the governor is trying to force Senate Republicans to support the state DREAM Act and Assembly Democrats approve tuition tax credits.

The governor is playing a high-risk political game, which could leave both private and parochial K-12 students as well as undocumented immigrant college students with no help at all.  He deserves an “incomplete” on this one – depends on how his linkage works.

The governor, though, does offer some really bad ideas too.  His budget calls for cuts to the state’s opportunity programs, which provide additional support for students who come from financially and educationally-deprived backgrounds.  These programs have had an impressive track record of success – students in these programs graduate at higher rates than typical college students – yet the governor proposes cuts.

At the same time, the governor proposes to withhold 10 percent of state support for the State University and New York City University systems unless they develop plans to boost performance – such as improving graduate rates.  Thus, in an Alice in Wonderland-like plan, while the governor is proposing cuts in programs that have a demonstrated success in helping students to graduate, he proposes to withhold state funding unless public colleges develop programs to increase graduation rates!

Proposing budget cuts to programs that succeed while threatening to withhold funding unless the colleges offer successful programs is indefensible.  He gets an “F” for these ideas, but there still is time to reverse this grade.

Next week the governor offers his amendments to his own budget, which is allowed under the state’s budget rules.  Here’s hoping that he adds the funding back to the state’s opportunity programs.

And here’s hoping that the governor uses this opportunity to also advance additional measures to make college more affordable.  The demographics of college students have changed, and continue to change.  There are more women and more non-whites attending college now.  There are more students attending college than ever before, both full-time, but also part-time.

As the college student population has changed, so its financial aid needs to change too.

The state must ensure that financial aid is targeted to those students most in need, as well as ensuring that the program is adapting to the changing demographics of New York’s college student body.  If the governor tackles this problem, it would be one area in which he could get a grade of “A.”


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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