Here’s a litmus test for how government should allocate its money in a fiscal crisis:
Meet the needs of the poorest first.
That goes for healthcare. It goes for food and shelter. And it goes for education.
So while there are certainly benefits to helping all students in New York attend college, a state trying to close a $6.1 billion budget deficit must first take care of the poorest students before giving breaks to those who can more easily afford it.
So it stands to reason that now is not the time for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to expand the family income cap for state Excelsior Scholarships from $125,000 to $150,000 to allow more students to secure free tuition at state colleges.
In fact, the state should be redirecting funds from that program to other programs that help lift needy students from the depths of poverty and help them gain a college education that they could never otherwise afford.
We’ve never been fans of the Excelsior Scholarship anyway, viewing it as too generous for already overburdened taxpayers and not helpful enough to poor students. (It only covers tuition, not room, board and other college expenses.)
Expanding the program to even more higher-income families — particularly now, when the state could instead be trying to close the budget gap or trying to meet the needs of others who require such assistance — is just ludicrous.
Instead, as some state lawmakers and government watchdog groups suggested at a hearing on Wednesday, the state should consider expanding its Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) which is based on demonstrated financial need and serves more than 300,000 low-income students.
By contrast, the Excelsior program only helps about 20,000 students, mostly from higher-income families.
The state also should invest more in the Higher Education Opportunity Program, another program that serves economically disadvantaged students and that turns away 8,000 needy students a year.
With SUNY tuition expected to increase $200 a year for the next five years and TAP awards expected to remain flat, a college education will become even more elusive to poorer students in the coming years if the state doesn’t devote more money to help them.
With limited resources available due to the budget deficit, and with New York’s poorer families facing even more challenges, now is not the time to be giving more financial breaks to people who don’t necessarily need them.
First help the people who need it most.
Expanding the Excelsior Scholarship program does just the opposite.