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Blair Horner: State Budget Deficit Looms - Will College Financial Aid Programs Take A Hit?

Reports out of New York’s Capitol paint a worsening picture of the state’s finances.  It’s been reported that the state is facing an upcoming budget deficit in excess of $6 billion.  Half of the deficit is attributed to costs relating to the state Medicaid program – the health insurance coverage for the poor and disabled.

The Assembly Speaker has raised the idea of closing the deficit by raising revenues instead of cutting public programs.  Although more muted, the response from the governor’s office has been cool to the idea of raising taxes.

If history is any guide, lawmakers will be reluctant to enact cuts to popular programs in an election year.  The biggest parts of the state budget – K-12 education and health care – are fiercely protected by interest groups looking to maintain funding.

The governor’s office has instructed agencies to prepare their budgets with no expectation of increased state support beyond – perhaps – offsetting inflation.  Altogether it looks like the debate over how to close the budget deficit will dominate the 2020 legislative session that begins in early January.

And looking back over the record of past budget fights, the programs most likely to face the biggest funding cuts are those that do not have politically powerful institutional supports.  These are the programs that are designed to benefit smaller groups of individuals, usually without the capacity to make campaign contributions or hire hotwired lobbyists to represent them.

One such program is the state’s efforts to aid needy college students.  The state offers an impressive Tuition Assistance Program, which offsets a billion dollars in tuition costs for students in both the public and independent college sectors.

But for students and their families, college costs go beyond tuition alone: there are textbook costs, housing, transportation, food, etc.  In an effort to offset these costs and to provide other assistance to students in need, the state offers “opportunity programs.”  Opportunity programs are designed for educationally and economically disadvantaged students—in general, students who have come from low-income communities and often rank low on traditional measures of collegiate admissions standards, such SAT scores, high school GPA, and class standing.  

New York State has several opportunity programs in place to help students at both public and independent colleges and universities overcome the financial and academic obstacles of completing their education: Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK), Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), College Discovery (CD), and Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP).  These programs take a comprehensive approach to college access and affordability by building in academic counseling, mentoring, and often providing waivers for related costs such as transit, textbooks, and childcare. 

These programs have had a long track record of success.  For example, the State University of New York’s EOP provides access, academic support, and supplemental financial assistance to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, many of them the first in their families to attend college.  

According to SUNY, graduation and retention rates of Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) students compare favorably to that of the general student population at comparable schools.  First year retention, where a student re-enrolls for a second year, for SUNY four-year senior college EOP students is 91% percent, whereas first year retention rates for the general student body at SUNY senior colleges is approximately 84%.  The six-year graduation rate for EOP students is 73%, whereas the SUNY-wide senior college rate is 68%.

Helping college students succeed is in the state’s interest.  Investment in education pays off:  For every $1 spent on education, the economy reaps $8 in benefits.  And college-educated workers earn more than their high-school educated peers by an average of $17,500 per year.

So, what’s the problem?  Despite their track record of success, these programs benefit a relatively small number of students and those individuals and their families lack political clout.  Usually, the governor cuts funding for these programs and the Legislature then restores them to the previous year’s levels.  But status-quo restorations often mean that additional needy students cannot obtain benefits and the impact of inflation erodes the funding levels even for those who do obtain help.

With New York facing a budget deficit, state officials will be looking for cuts in programs that do not result in a widespread public uproar.  Let’s hope that this year the governor examines the success of these programs and decides that despite the pressures, he’ll keep the state investing in its future and help those college students who need the most help.

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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