Commentary: Investing in Tuition Assistance Program will pay dividends

Mary Beth Labate

This op-ed was published in the Times Union on Feb. 27, 2020

I witness daily the efforts exerted by presidents of private, not-for-profit colleges and universities to make a college education more affordable for every student, regardless of their ZIP code. For many students, access to New York's student aid programs, such as the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), can help make college dreams reality and open the door to new opportunities.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made college affordability a priority, and we are grateful that this issue is receiving much-needed attention at the state level. However, we strongly believe that the state's limited resources should be better targeted toward low- and moderate-income families who need additional support.

The executive budget proposes expanding the income eligibility for the Excelsior Scholarship to families with incomes up to $150,000, which is more than double the median family income statewide and more than triple the median income for African-American and Latinx households. In a world of competing demands and finite resources, the students and families who most need additional support will not be getting it.

Increasing TAP is the equity-based, progressive response to college affordability, in particular for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers. TAP currently assists an estimated 320,000 low- and moderate-income New Yorkers, including nearly 64,000 New York residents who choose to attend private, not-for-profit colleges.

However, the decades-long failure to update TAP in a meaningful way has eroded the buying power of this program. Today, New York spends $92 million, or 9 percent, less on TAP than it did in 2014-15, with 13 percent fewer beneficiaries. Unless action is taken to expand TAP, this alarming decline is projected to continue. That's why we're calling on Cuomo and the Legislature to increase both the maximum and minimum TAP award to $6,000 and $1,000, respectively, as well as to increase the income eligibility threshold to $110,000.

New York's private colleges are doing their part to make college more affordable, and now New York state must do its part too. While TAP award amounts have remained virtually unchanged over the past two decades, private colleges have increased the financial aid they provide by 32 percent in the past five years alone. Together, New York's private colleges provide more than $6 billion in institutional aid to 85 percent of our students, bringing the average cost to attend a private, not-for-profit college down to $26,888.

When it comes to choosing a college, there is another issue just as important as affordability for the success of students — the right fit. We know that students fare best where they fit best, and TAP helps New Yorkers select the college that best suits their academic interests and career goals with confidence.

The breadth and quality of our independent higher education sector is one of the state's most compelling economic assets, an attraction for employers who covet the talent and skills that our faculty and students bring. Our institutions are also a major economic driver, generating $88.8 billion in economic impact and supporting more than 415,000 jobs. Without investing in our higher education landscape and TAP recipients, we risk weakening an entire sector that has brought tremendous benefit and pride to communities from Long Island to Buffalo and disadvantaging the low- and moderate-income students we serve.

Every New York student should be free to choose the college path that is right for them and should be supported by the state in their efforts. By investing in TAP, the future of New York state's workforce will be more competitive and inclusive, and our colleges and universities will be able to continue preparing the leaders of tomorrow right here in the Empire State.

Mary Beth Labate is the president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities (CICU), representing more than 100 private, not-for-profit colleges and universities and nearly 500,000 students across New York.