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Lawmakers question proposal to lift SUNY scholarship income ceiling

Lawmakers question proposal to lift SUNY scholarship income ceiling

Lawmakers question proposal to lift SUNY scholarship income ceiling
The exterior of Van Curler Elston Hall at SUNY Schenectady County Community College
Photographer: Gazette file photo

CAPITOL -- State lawmakers on Tuesday resisted Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to lift the ceiling of family income that qualifies students for free tuition at state college and universities while arguing programs focused on low-income students need more support.

Lawmakers focused in on the so-called “TAP gap,” the difference between the state’s tuition assistance program grants to low-income students and the actual cost of tuition, as they pressed SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson on the governor’s plan to increase to $150,000 the level up to which families qualify for the state’s free tuition program.

Johnson said across all SUNY schools the gap between the TAP grants – which on average go to students from families making about $20,000 a year – and tuition is about $82 million, costs largely born by the different SUNY campuses. The gap also continues to grow as SUNY plans to raise tuition $200 a year over the next five years and the TAP grant remains flat.

Meanwhile, the governor last month proposed expanding his signature excelsior scholarship program, which covers the cost of tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools, to provide families making up to $150,000 a year the free tuition grants. The income threshold currently sits at $125,000.

“Does it seem there may be a better use of those resources?” Assemblywoman Deborah Glick said of the prioritization of an excelsior expansion over other programs.

As she testified in front of a joint committee of a lawmakers from both parties and houses of the Legislature, Johnson defended the excelsior program and urged lawmakers to boost tuition support across all income level. She said around 20,000 students attending SUNY schools are benefiting from the excelsior program, about a 20 percent increase over the prior year.

“The opportunity to increase aid to all students in SUNY would be welcome,” Johnson told lawmakers during the hearing.

But lawmakers repeatedly raised questions about boosting the excelsior threshold without first addressing concerns about programs targeting needier students. Another state program, the Higher Education Opportunity Program, serves economically disadvantaged students and has registered higher graduation rates than SUNY schools. The state, however, can only accept about 4,000 students into the program each year, Johnson said, even as it receives about 12,000 applications.

“We are making choices around expanding excelsior [scholarships] while cutting other programs where students have much more need,” said Assemblyman Harvey Epstein, who represents a Manhattan district. “Why not put money in the pockets of people who have deeper needs? I’m baffled really by the choices.”

Concerns remain on full-time faculty, enrollment

During her testimony, Johnson also fielded questions from lawmakers about the breakdown of full-time faculty and adjunct faculty at SUNY college and universities.

Johnson said across the SUNY system about half of the teachers are full time, but that at the state’s community colleges only about 30 percent of professors are full time.

“I would love to see more full-time faculty,” Johnson said.

Lawmakers said for years they have heard promises from SUNY officials that the share of full-time faculty would increase but that it had not done so.

Johnson also highlighted concerns about enrollment. Enrollment declines have continued to plague the state’s community colleges,  which often see their enrollments fall during times of low unemployment,  but she also signaled fears that falling enrollment could strike systemwide.

Citing the state’s continued pattern of out-migration, coupled with a falling number of high school graduates across the region, Johnson said SUNY could be down “tens of thousands of students” in the coming years if it doesn’t succeed in recruiting students from outside New York and strengthening in-state enrollments too.

“Enrollment is a laser focus for us right now,” she said.

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