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March 8, 2017

A ‘Student Plan’ Will Make New York Colleges Affordable

By Kevin Stump

When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed the Excelsior Scholarship plan a few weeks ago, standing alongside former Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, it demonstrated that making college affordable is good politics. The announcement also triggered a healthy and long-overdue debate on the best way to tackle the affordability crisis that either restricts access to college for those most at need or drives up student loan debt for poor and middle-class New Yorkers. (Currently some 2.8 million State residents hold $82 billion in student loan debt.) The governor’s plan would waive tuition for City University of New York (CUNY) and State University of New York (SUNY) fulltime students (those taking courses totalling 15 credits a semester) who graduate on time and who have family incomes of $125,000 a year or less.
Legislators feeling constituent pressure on this issue are responding with their own proposed reforms to the existing State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). Things will come to a head over the next few weeks, as the April 1 deadline for adopting the next State budget approaches.
As they do, State leaders need to address the concerns I, and many others, have raised about the proposed Excelsior Scholarships – specifically that they would permit tuition to continue to go up for students who don’t qualify for these grants, including undocumented students and part-time low-income students. That’s why the organization I represent, Young Invincibles, is putting forward the “NY Student Plan.” Outlined below, it calls for the State to make investments in more aid to more students.
As the Assembly Democratic majority and the Senate Republican majority finalize their plans, they should support the NY Student Plan for the following three reasons:
First, the Governor’s game-changing announcement to offer free college to all New Yorkers cuts across party lines and political ideologies. This is especially true for today’s young adults, who have been saddled with high student loan debt in a sluggish economy with historically low wages, threatening the Millennial Generation’s financial security for decades to come.
Second, we have to get this moment right. And policy matters. While the proposed Excelsior Scholarship is an important step forward, the majority of costs associated with getting a college degree are in room and board, transportation, books, and other non-tuition-related expenses. Most of the proposals we’ve seen from policymakers, including the Excelsior Scholarship, do nothing to address those costs. 
Third, the State Legislature needs to deliver a plan that demonstrates their commitment to the residents who vote them into office. Coming home after the budget passes having only helped a select few simply won’t cut it. There must be a significant financial investment to offset the rising costs of college.
The NY Student Plan addresses these concerns. It includes part-time and undocumented students. It calls for raising the maximum TAP award from where it currently stands, $5,165 annually, to $6,470, and also for indexing these grants to tuition so that when costs rise, so do award amounts. The State must also raise the family income ceiling on receiving the maximum TAP grant, from its current level of $7,000 to $60,000, which is the median income for New York families. This will help more low- and middle-income students use TAP to cover the full costs of tuition while allowing them to use other aid, such as Federal Pell grants, to cover non-tuition expenses.
A secondary priority the State should consider is increasing the minimum TAP award from $500 to $1,500 and raising the family income ceiling for TAP awards from where it currently stands, $80,000, to $125,000 annually.
Finally, we agree with the Governor’s oft-repeated mantra about the need to increase graduation rates for the most at-need students. In line with that, the State should expand its investments in the public university system, counteracting a decade of structural disinvestment. Specifically, the State should dramatically invest in evidenced-based opportunity programs like CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which includes funding for student books and transportation, block-scheduling of classes to accommodate students with jobs and other non-academic demands on their time, and more. Designed to lower financial barriers to college while raising degree completion rates, CUNY ASAP is a model of how we should be thinking about providing a 21st century college education.
The kitchen table economics of making public college tuition free or more affordable for all families means additional dollars in the pockets of students, which could reduce the current crushing load of student loan debt. But it’s critical to recognize this moment is not just about making college more accessible by making it more affordable. It’s also reflective of the larger and urgent needs of our economy, which increasingly continues to require some type of post-secondary education.
Kevin Stump is northeast director of Young Invincibles, an organization that elevates the voices of and expands economic opportunity for today’s young adult generation. Young Invincibles co-sponsored, with the Center for New York City Affairs, a public forum, “College Affordability: Will New York Lead the Way?”, which is available to watch online here.

Photo credit: Luke Jones