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Blair Horner: Time To Fix Funding Of Higher Education

Last week, as the state budget hearings continued, lawmakers heard pleas from academics, faculty and students that higher educational institutions are struggling, and that New York’s public policies make things worse.

One consistent refrain was the need for the Legislature to change the governor’s proposed budget by closing the so-called “TAP gap.”  What’s a TAP gap?  First, some background.

When Governor Cuomo came into office in 2011, one of the initiatives he advanced was a plan to annually increase tuition at public colleges and universities.  The appeal of predictable increases, according to the governor, is that students and their families would know the annual cost of tuition.  Under his plan, tuition would go up annually, but be capped at a certain amount.  In the early years, that cap was set at $300 annual increase.

But what was not fully discussed was the impact it would have on the state’s biggest college financial program – the Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP.  TAP is an almost fifty year old program that awards state financial aid to college students – both at public and independent colleges – based on income.  The poorer the student, the larger the award.

Until Governor Cuomo, the maximum TAP award matched the cost of tuition at public colleges.

When the governor first advanced his plan, that relationship was severed.  Instead the maximum TAP award was frozen at $5,000 annually (it was bumped up a few years later to $5,165) while tuition costs annually went up.  Tuition at the State University of New York today hovers around $7,000.  Under the new system, the local college must make up the $2,000 difference per needy student out of their own local budget.

The difference between public college tuition and the maximum TAP award is known as the “TAP gap.”  That “gap” is increasingly putting strains on the community colleges and four-year public colleges, since they now must pony up a million dollars or so to help needy students – assistance that used to be provided by the state.

Independent (private) colleges are facing the financial pressure too, since TAP offers less and less assistance for low-income students that often needs to be made up by those institutions.

In addition, there are substantial demographic changes in New York.  The upstate population is shrinking, particularly among the college-aged.  SUNY community colleges have taken a dramatic hit, with tens of thousands of fewer students than a decade ago.

As a result of these pressures, SUNY 4-year colleges have had to raise tuition and administrative fees to cover costs.  Many SUNY community colleges are teetering on the brink as they grapple with cratering student enrollments and tight state assistance.  Community college tuition – already among the highest in the nation – has had to jump.  With fewer students, but the same costs, tuition hikes have to cover the difference.  Higher tuition results in fewer students and things keep getting worse.

Independent colleges and universities are taking a hit too and their share of the TAP awards has dropped substantially. 

What is to be done?

In the short-term, the state needs to cover the difference of the “TAP gap.”  Doing so will immediately bring relief to struggling campuses.  The help to community colleges will need to be even more robust, as some of them are in dire financial straits.  Also, the state must boost aid to independent colleges to help them make ends meet. 

A longer-term solution is to modernize the state’s TAP program.  Peg the maximum award to the cost of public college tuition – which helps all colleges – and modernize it.  Ten years ago, the state stopped awarding TAP to graduate students.  In the modern age that doesn’t make sense.  Part-timers – students typically juggling job and family responsibilities – should get aid, too.

The state’s Excelsior Scholarship – which offers some help – benefits only a very small portion of students.  Last year, of the total 452,000 full-time undergraduate public college students (287,000 at SUNY and 165,000 at CUNY), only 25,000 received an Excelsior award.

One hundred years ago, reformers pushed to make public school free.  They argued that a better educated populace benefited the nation’s economy and strengthened democracy. 

In the 21st Century, education beyond high school is as critical now as universal education was at the turn of the 20th Century.  Public policies today should seek to make it more affordable and accessible, not less.  One place to start is by closing the “Tap gap.”

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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