Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)
Victory for middle class New Yorkers! The state budget finally passed and it includes a number of college affordability reforms for middle class students. Despite some of the shortfalls of these reforms, they are an exciting step forward in reinvesting in the state’s public university systems after years of structural disinvestment, flat financial aid, and tuition hikes.
These reforms must be treated as initial progress toward greater investment into SUNY and CUNY that will truly eliminate cost as a barrier to access and success.
The newly established Excelsior Scholarship will cover the remaining cost of tuition after SUNY or CUNY students have used their Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and their federal Pell grant awards. Only full-time students who come from families with incomes of less than $125,000, who take 30 credits a year, and who graduate on-time will be eligible by the end of a three-year phase-in.
The budget also established a Part-Time Scholarship (PTS) that is available to community college students based on financial need who take more than six credits but less than 12 credits a semester. Students who qualify may receive an award up to $1,500 for up to four-consecutive semesters only, which would likely leave them without any aid to finish the second half of their degree.
The final deal also includes an idea originally proposed by Senate Republicans called Enhanced TAP (E-TAP), which is an award granted to residents attending private college in the state. Students with family incomes less than $125,000 attending non-profit, degree-granting institutions will receive $3,000 in additional state aid. If the student already receives TAP grants, E-TAP will cover any additional funding needed to meet, but not exceed, the full $3,000 allotment. If the student doesn’t receive TAP, E-TAP will cover the full amount.
Further, the same legislation makes it so the school cannot raise tuition for that student during their time of study and the school must match the award granted under E-TAP in an effort to ensure that an increase in state aid doesn’t reduce the institutional aid a student receives. The rules of the program make it so a student would be eligible for a total of $6,000 in E-TAP, TAP, and institutional aid. However, the program does give schools the opportunity to opt-out of E-TAP and simply offer their students regular TAP awards, should they qualify.
While Governor Cuomo and middle class families are celebrating this victory, there is still a great deal of work to do to make this initiative more inclusive, less penalizing, and more accessible to disadvantaged students who continue to struggle.
Under the new plan, for students who cannot take a 30 credit courseload every year, resident tuition at SUNY and CUNY will increase by $200 annually until 2021 while their TAP awards remain unchanged. And unfortunately, the state’s undocumented students are still excluded from receiving TAP, and by extension, any of the new reforms passed this year such as the Excelsior Scholarship, E-TAP, and the Part-Time Scholarship.
For the most disadvantaged, the news and widespread attention of offering free tuition may encourage more low-income students to consider college as an option -- and that’s a good thing. But we know that tuition is only one piece of the financial puzzle to get students into and through school, and for those students with fewer means to cover books, housing, food and more, the scholarship falls short.
For those students who already attend SUNY or CUNY tuition-free because of TAP and Pell, this scholarship does nothing to actually increase their financial aid. This is especially concerning considering that more than half of CUNY undergraduate students come from family incomes of less than $30,000, making them qualified for enough TAP and Pell awards to cover tuition and allowing for nearly 80 percent of students to graduate debt free. Further, recent research from Sara Goldrick Rab from The Wisconsin Hope Lab finds that 20 percent of community college students are hungry and 13 percent are homeless, further supporting greater financial aid for the most at-need students beyond only covering the cost of tuition.
One of the most damaging parts of the program passed in this state budget agreement includes a provision that will convert both the Excelsior Scholarship and Enhanced TAP dollars granted to students into loans should they leave the state after graduation.
Graduates are required to work and live in the state for the same amount of time they received these awards. This will negatively impact about 20 percent of SUNY students and does not account for graduates who leave to join the military, do community service, or have other extenuating circumstances. Instead of penalizing young adult middle class New Yorkers who were able to successfully graduate on-time and benefit from these programs, state leaders should focus on building a more inclusive economy and creating incentives that reward, not punish, Millennial New Yorkers who stay and work in the state.
Finally, we agree with Governor Cuomo when he speaks about dismally low graduation rates and we support him when he talks about needing to close the college attainment gaps. With a less than 6 percent two-year graduation rate at CUNY community colleges and a less than 15 percent graduation rate at CUNY four-year colleges, it’s clear there needs to be a change. This shouldn’t be surprising when considering that more than 80 percent of incoming CUNY students require some type of remedial coursework. But, eliminating tuition and reducing cost as a barrier to access is only half of the equation to increasing graduation rates, especially among those who are the most academically and economically disadvantaged.
We need to address the above shortfalls of the newly enacted college affordability reforms and strengthen the quality and capacity of SUNY and CUNY to better graduate students on time. This includes greater investment to hire more full-time faculty, dramatically bring to scale proven opportunity programs and supports, and offer need-based financial aid to cover non-tuition related costs.