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Coming down the home stretch for a higher education budget deal

If media reports are to be believed, Governor Hochul and the state’s legislative leaders are inching toward a budget deal this week. The big issues – housing, K-12 education funding, Medicaid – have been getting all of the airtime, but there are many other important policies that are in play. 

One of those top issues is how will the final budget deal strengthen the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). TAP is fifty years old this year. For five decades, TAP has been the way of directing financial aid to the neediest students in both the public and independent college sectors. Historically, TAP has covered the entire cost of public college tuition for the lowest income students and helped offset those costs for moderate- and middle-income students.

However, the TAP program has been neglected over the past few decades. Policymakers have chosen to do little to strengthen the program in order to keep pace with changes in higher education. The maximum family income for TAP eligibility has stayed the same for the past twenty years. The minimum TAP award has stayed the same during that period as well.

Moreover, starting in the Cuomo Administration, the maximum TAP award was frozen as the state continually raised public college tuition. It wasn’t until five years had gone by before lawmakers forced an increase in the maximum TAP award, but it still does not cover the full cost of SUNY tuition.

The impacts surely are clear to policymakers. Combined with a decline in college enrollment, New York’s failures to update TAP have resulted in an enormous reduction in the amount of financial aid made available to students. In fact, over the past 15 years the amount of TAP assistance has dropped by a whopping $237 million in real dollars.

When the “frozen” income eligibility and award amounts are adjusted for inflation, the reduction in higher educational purchasing power becomes evident. Adjusting for consumer inflation alone and just comparing what would have happened if the maximum and minimum TAP awards had tracked the Consumer Price Index (the inflation rate in higher education tends to run higher than overall consumer inflation), shows that TAP awards would have been significantly greater if it kept pace with inflation for the higher education sector.

The Cuomo policy of keeping the maximum TAP award frozen while increasing public college tuition also destabilized some SUNY colleges. Under the policy, public colleges were required to cover the difference between what their students received as the maximum TAP award and the rising SUNY tuition price tag. That “gap” swelled over time and became known as the “TAP gap.”

The TAP gap eroded public colleges’ finances as they were regularly being asked to cover rising tuition costs for their poorest students. Independent colleges were hit too. Since TAP awards were frozen, they too had to figure out ways to cover the financial assistance that would normally have come from the state’s TAP.

Rising costs coupled with restrained financial assistance contributed to a drop in enrollments. Fewer students equal less money for colleges that were already seeing reductions in state assistance. That “one-two” punch surely accelerated the weakening financial situations at SUNY – and smaller independent colleges – and the results are clearer every day.

The problems of the TAP program have long been known by New York’s leaders. The hope was that this being the 50th anniversary of the TAP program, Governor Hochul would develop a modernization plan.

Instead, she essentially offered more of the same.

Both houses of the Legislature, on the other hand, advanced robust improvements in their budget plans. Given the fact that the negotiations on the state budget are conducted in near complete secrecy, it’s hard to know what will happen with this important program.

Colleges and universities have important jobs: they train the next generation of workers and help them to better understand civic life. In addition, they are economic engines that create jobs that stimulate and anchor local economies. They offer a stimulus to local economies that are virtually guaranteed to succeed.

Whether the state’s political leadership agrees that New York’s economic future hinges on a robust system of higher education, only time will tell. What will be clear is that if are no significant changes to TAP that reverse the program’s decline, New Yorkers will know exactly who opposed the reforms – Governor Hochul. She did not advance significant changes in January, while both houses of the Legislature did. With the future of higher education for New York students and families hanging in the balance, we should know the outcome of that debate soon.

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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