Blair Horner: Lawmakers Return, Debate Higher Education Budget

Feb 26, 2018

New York lawmakers return to the Capitol this week to begin their push to agree on a state budget, due by April 1.  There are a number of issues on which they must agree: first the amount of money that is available and then how to spend it. 

Generally speaking, what the governor proposes in his budget plan is 90 percent of what will become law.  A large portion of the budget is money from the federal government that requires little action by New York State other than the approval to spend it as expected by the feds.

Much of the state spending has the quiet approval of the legislature, but there can be disagreements over how much to spend on programs as well as how the governor proposes to spend allocated funds on programs.

Those disagreements are what can lead to the controversies that often dominate media coverage of the Albany budget process.

One area in which there is expected disagreement is the governor’s proposed higher education budget.  In his budget plan, the governor proposed big cuts to colleges’ “opportunity programs.” 

Opportunity programs, which are designed for educationally and economically disadvantaged students, have a steady track record of success in increasing graduation rates among the most at-risk students.  In general, students in opportunity programs 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 increase access to and success in higher education to New Yorkers. 

These programs include Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK), Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), and others.  The State University of New York’s EOP students may receive support services, such as academic, career, and personal counseling; tutoring and supplemental instruction.  As part of a student's overall financial aid package, EOP provides financial assistance for non-tuition related expenses (e.g., books, supplies, etc.). 

Similarly, the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (known as ASAP) and similar programs build in robust advisement services, and funding for textbook and transit costs, among other costs.  And it works.  Students involved in the nationally recognized ASAP graduate at more than double the rate of non-ASAP students.

Despite the track records of success for these programs, the executive budget proposes cuts, not improvements, to the tune of nearly $24 million in reduced support.  Here is what the governor proposed:

  • The executive budget cuts $5 million from State University of New York’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP).
  • The executive budget cuts nearly $5 million from Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK), which offers help to CUNY students in four-year colleges and universities.   
  • The executive budget cuts $2.5 million from CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP). 
  • The executive budget cuts nearly $6 million in the HEOP, which is similar to EOP, but offers help to students in independent colleges and universities.
  • The executive budget cuts $1 million to child care centers at SUNY and $900,000 dollars from child care centers at CUNY. 
  • The executive budget eliminates funding for the state’s Bundy Aid program – which offers aid to independent colleges and universities that is usually used for student services.

Why would the governor propose cuts to programs with demonstrated successes in helping students to succeed and graduate college?  The argument often heard is that the plan is a way to put some pressure on the legislature to “buy back” those cuts.  In the contorted, horse-trading world of Albany, sometimes the governor proposes cuts that he believes that the legislature will restore. 

Of course, when he does that he runs the risk that those programs don’t get restored and, in this case, deserving students may lose out on a college education, which could drastically hurt their career opportunities. 

And sometimes cuts do happen.  Last year, for example, the governor proposed cuts to public health programs – funding for efforts to help Alzheimer’s patients, address lead poisoning and other issues – that took a 20 percent cut.

While there may be ways that such budget maneuvers make sense in a tactical way, they unnecessarily put people’s education or health at risk.  Let’s hope that this year’s budget sees not only restoration but expansion of these – and other – important programs that can make a huge difference in the lives of New Yorkers.

And let’s hope that in future budgets these games end.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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