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Blair Horner: The Campaign Season Ends, Governing Begins

The dust has largely settled from the 2018 election season.  Across the nation, the work of governing begins.  And when Governor Cuomo is sworn in for his third consecutive term, he will be the second longest-serving governor in office (Utah’s Governor Gary Herbert being the longest, he was elected in 2009).

The governor will have his work cut out for him.  According to the state Comptroller, the state faces a possible $17.9 billion deficit over the next three years, if spending levels stayed the same and adjusted for inflation.  The governor’s office says that it can manage those shortfalls by keeping a cap on state spending to no more than 2 percent.

But keeping to that cap will be difficult.  During the governor’s tenure, spending on health care and education – the two biggest components of the budget – have exceeded that cap, so there have to be cuts in other areas.

And that doesn’t factor in possible changes in the federal budget or a downturn in the economy. 

Moreover, the governor will want to spend more in certain areas.  During the election campaign, the governor stated that he wanted to maintain – and expand – the state’s support for public health insurance.  Since the President still seems hell-bent on destroying the federal health insurance program that provides coverage for tens of millions of Americans, states like New York will be stuck trying to provide protection.

There are other issues that the governor continues to stand behind.  Higher education is one such issue.  For example, the Excelsior Scholarship, in combination with other student financial aid programs, allows students to attend a SUNY or CUNY college tuition-free.  A recipient of an Excelsior Scholarship may receive up to $5,500.  The Scholarship is available to eligible college students. 

To be eligible an applicant must have a combined federal adjusted gross income of $110,000 or less; be enrolled in at least 30 credits each year (successively); if attended college prior to the 2018-19 academic year, have earned at least 30 credits each year; and agree to reside and be employed in the state for the length of time the award is received.

Unfortunately, the program’s requirements dramatically limit participation.  The Scholarship, which was advertised as an option for hundreds of thousands of public college students, was only awarded to 20,000 students.  The State University and City University systems have over 630,000 college students; thus, the Excelsior Program was awarded to only 3 percent of the student population.

Does that mean that the Scholarship failed?  Not at all.  For those 20,000 students and their families, the program is an important component of paying for college.

But the program’s potential impact was excessively hyped.  

New York State law requires that the program expand eligibility next year and this is one of the governor’s signature policies.  Despite a tight budget, the governor will be tested to not only expand the program to higher income students, but to figure out ways to ensure that other needy, qualified students have access to the Scholarship. 

First, the governor should change Excelsior so that it requires that students meet the same full-time requirement as the Tuition Assistance Program: 12 credits per semester or 24 credits a year, instead of 30 credits.

Second, help part-time students.  Making college attainable for all New Yorkers means expanding affordability for part-time students, too.  

Third, provide non-financial aid to needy students.  Lower income students often need other economic and counseling assistance in order to succeed.  Programs such as the City University’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) are proven successes with graduation rates that exceed the general student population.

The Excelsior Program is a laudable program, but it is only a first step.  Despite all the other troubles the governor faces, strengthening the state’s financial assistance to college students should be an important goal.

Blair Horner is executive 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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