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What the New York Budget Means for the State’s College Students

On Tuesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo released his proposed state budget for Fiscal Year 2021. Cuomo’s budget proposal outlines how the Governor hopes to spend the state’s $178 billion budget (larger than the economies of Iceland, Ukraine, and Bolivia combined!), and includes funding for existing programs as well as new initiatives. As legislators in Albany prepare for weeks of budget negotiations, Young Invincibles took a closer look at the Governor’s proposal to see how the state’s college students fare in this Executive Budget.

For this year’s budget (FY2021), the Cuomo administration is calling for a $7.8 billion investment for the state’s higher education programs, a slight increase from last year’s proposal of $7.6 billion. Yet, while the Governor touts increasing investment in the state’s higher education system, recent research shows that New York was one of only three states that saw an overall decrease in higher education spending in FY2020.

The higher education budget includes funding for all sorts of college-related costs in New York — from improving campus buildings to investing in the state’s scholarship programs. This year’s budget calls for a $146 million investment in the Excelsior Scholarship, which will be expanded to serve families earning up to $150,000 a year. Currently, the program caps eligibility to families with incomes of up to $125,000.

Launched in 2017, the Excelsior Scholarship helps SUNY and CUNY cover the cost of tuition after receiving other federal and state aid, such as Pell Grants and the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). Advocates have raised the alarm on several troubling restrictions of the Excelsior Scholarship program, including requiring students to take 30 credits annually, and limiting aid for students who take longer than four years to complete a degree. In its first year, the Excelsior Scholarship served just 3 percent of the state’s undergraduates, and less than one percent of the 95,951 students who attend CUNY’s community colleges. Meanwhile, about 4 percent of SUNY students received the Excelsior Scholarship.

In addition to expanding Excelsior eligibility for families earning up to $150,000 a year, the Governor’s proposed budget also called for increasing financial aid to students attending the state’s private colleges. Cuomo’s budget expands the state’s Enhanced Tuition Awards program — which provides aid to private college students — to include families earning up to $150,000 annually.

While the Governor’s budget recognizes the strain that the rising cost of college has on middle-income families, it does not fully recognize the strain felt by New York’s low-income college students. By design, the Excelsior Scholarship does not provide significant support for low-income students who already receive tuition support from Pell Grants and TAP aid.

Yet, we know that low-income students still struggle with the costs of college, particularly living expenses beyond tuition, such as housing, textbooks, food, and transportation. Aside from a proposal to expand SNAP benefits to certain community college students, the Governor’s budget does little to address the growing share of college students who cannot afford housing or food in New York.

The Governor’s budget also does not address the new reality for college students: many students are increasingly juggling work, parenting, and other responsibilities while enrolled in college. Expanding programs like Excelsior that require students to enroll full-time does little to support the state’s part-time students who must juggle work and college to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, the Governor’s budget is silent on investing in programs that improve college graduation rates by helping students with not only tuition but transportation costs, textbook funding, and individualized counseling to make sure students have the support they need to complete college. Programs like CUNY ASAP provide these services to students, and research shows they double graduation rates. Yet, the Governor’s proposed budget missed an opportunity to expand this nationally recognized program to all of CUNY’s four-year colleges — a critical investment for both CUNY’s four-year college students and community college students looking to transfer — as well as establishing a similar program to SUNY students.

As legislators in Albany debate the Governor’s proposed budget, it is critical for our elected officials to recognize the real financial struggles that college students are facing across our state and to make sure the state’s investments in our higher education reflect that reality.