Lawmakers Question Governor’s Higher Ed Spending Plan

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ALBANY — Some New York lawmakers called on the governor this week to do more to help low-income college students instead of following through with his proposal that would benefit mostly upper-class students.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has proposed letting slightly wealthier students qualify for the tuition-free Excelsior Scholarship program at colleges in the State University of New York or City University of New York systems. Cuomo’s plan would let a family making up to $135,000 per year qualify for the program, up from the current $125,000 cutoff. That limit would then jump to $150,000 in 2022.

Assembly members Deborah Glick and Harvey Epstein, both Democrats, said at a budget hearing Tuesday that the proposal doesn’t do enough to help financially struggling students at a time when the governor also proposes continuing $200-a-year public tuition hikes.

The governor in his budget briefing book claimed that his proposal to boost the Excelsior Scholarship would allow more than 230,000 New York resident students to attend SUNY or CUNY tuition-free.

CUNY student Timothy Hunter, the chairperson of the university’s Student Senate, called on lawmakers to remove barriers for low-income students who could seek Excelsior Scholarships instead of raising the family income threshold.

He said the scholarship should apply to part-time students, cover tuition for summer and winter and also cover food, housing, travel for school activities, books and other school materials.

Hunter also raised questions on whether the scholarships are provided more to colleges with wealthier students.

“Excelsior provided significantly more benefits to students at colleges serving majority middle-income and near-middle-income students than colleges serving majority low-income students,” Hunter said in written testimony.

State data shows the Excelsior program provided about $13.6 million in scholarships to roughly 3,700 CUNY students and $84 million to roughly 21,000 SUNY students during the 2018-2019 school year. In 2017 and 2018, Bronx Community College and Hostos Community College each awarded 10 scholarships. The State University of New York at Buffalo awarded nearly 1,800 scholarships in the 2018-2019 academic year alone.

Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities President Mary Beth Labate said New York should instead expand its signature aid program. The Tuition Assistance Program, which helps 263,000 students whose families make up to $80,000, provides up to $5,165 in aid for students who attend private or public New York colleges.

“However, in recent years, the program has been helping fewer and fewer students in part because the income eligibility has not been adjusted in 20 years and in part because the size of the award has not been adjusted to address student need,” Labate said.

Cuomo’s budget directs $860 million for the Tuition Assistance program — a $88 million drop from last year — due partly to enrollment declines.

His budget calls for a $1.2 billion boost in spending on higher education through spring 2021, compared with last year’s budget. That includes a 6.5% increase in funding to SUNY and a 10.8% increase to CUNY. Much of the proposed increase in higher education spending comes from new appropriations for capital projects.


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