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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Governor Cuomo's Higher Education Budget

Over a decade ago, then-Governor George Pataki and the Legislature came to an agreement: undocumented immigrants living in New York and accepted to public college would be allowed to pay in-state tuition.  But there was a catch: they would not be eligible for financial aid.  Since then, advocates have been trying to eliminate that obstacle.  Last week, the Legislature acted.  It passed legislation to allow financial aid for those students. 

In response to that financial shortfall for lower income undocumented students, legislation, dubbed the “DREAM Act,” was introduced.  The DREAM Act makes financial aid, such as the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and other programs, available to eligible undocumented students.  Passage of the DREAM Act last week, if it’s approved by the governor (who has said he supports it), fixes that financial aid problem. 

Action on the legislation was the opening move to address the state’s support for higher education.  This week a second move occurs; the Legislature holds hearings on the governor’s overall budget plan for higher education. 

When the governor unveiled his proposals earlier this month, he recommended expansion of the state’s Excelsior Scholarship program.  Excelsior is a program that offers financial aid for middle income college students as long as they meet certain criteria.  These criteria are significant.  Students must successfully receive 30 credits in one year; failure to do so could result in the student losing the scholarship and may mean that the student has to repay the scholarship.     

Beyond expansion of Excelsior, the governor’s budget offers more pain than gain for college students and their families.

The governor’s budget hikes tuition at the State University of New York and the City University of New York.  That increase is the latest installment of the state’s so-called “rational tuition” plan.  The tuition plan was put in place as part of a bargain: tuition increases would be used to enhance the universities, not fill budget gaps.  Yet, it looks like the pledge is being broken and tuition is being used to plug budget shortfalls. 

The Legislature agrees.  Both houses have approved an enhanced “maintenance of effort” to supplement state support for SUNY and CUNY to allow greater freedom to use tuition dollars for enhancements.  However, the governor has blocked the measure, most recently vetoing it last month. 

Limiting state support is not the only way that SUNY and CUNY get starved for funds.  In years past, as public college tuition went up, New York would increase the maximum financial aid award so that the impact of a tuition hike would not impact the lowest income students.  But that policy has changed.  Instead, the local college campus is required to make up the difference between increasing tuition costs and the financial aid maximums which have not gone up.  Now, for example, SUNY tuition is $6,870 for an academic year.  The maximum TAP award covers $5,165, meaning that the local campus has to make up the $1,700 shortfall.  That policy adds to the financial stress felt by public colleges and universities.

The governor’s budget also cuts back state spending for some financial aid programs.  In this year’s budget, the governor proposes to cut spending for programs that aid college students from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  These programs – known as opportunity programs – have been successful in helping students graduate from college with a degree.  In particular, the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) program was highlighted by the Obama Administration as a model for the nation. 

Yet, the governor’s budget zeros out state support for ASAP, a reduction of $2.5 million.  And his cuts don’t stop there.  For example, the governor’s budget calls for cuts to opportunity programs that total $28 million.

The next move in the budget process starts after the budget hearings and that’s when the Legislature acts.  Hopefully, their review will lead to restorations of the governor’s proposed cuts and actions that ensure that these programs are expanded.

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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