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As budget process comes down to the wire, groups call on lawmakers to support neediest students in college tuition plan

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has touted the Excelsior scholarship, but few New York City students are benefitting.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has touted the Excelsior scholarship, but few New York City students are benefitting.
Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

As the New York state legislature races toward an April budget deadline, more voices are calling for a college affordability plan that provides additional help to low-income families.

After Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed the Excelsior Scholarship — which would make state college tuition-free for families earning less than $125,000 per year — the plan was met with a chorus of excitement, but also concern that it didn’t do enough for poor students.

As the April 1 deadline approaches, lawmakers and advocacy groups are scrambling to submit plans that improve on the governor’s plan.

New York’s Education Trust released a report Thursday that zooms in on the burden of college debt on low-income students and argues that Excelsior does not fully address this problem.

“It’s not that we are in any way against providing aid for middle class families,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of New York’s Education Trust. “It’s, let’s make it so lower- and middle-class families have what they need to go to college.”

Even though state tuition is typically covered by a combination of state and federal aid for families making less than $48,000 a year, students living in those communities still have upwards of $20,000 of student loan debt on average.

That’s because tuition at New York state public institutions makes up only 29 to 36 percent of the total cost of college, according to Ed Trust’s analysis. The rest is comprised of books, fees, housing and other expenses. Lower-income families are also much more likely to have trouble paying back their loans, according to the study.

State officials said New York already provides $1 billion in aid to low-income students and that Excelsior will ensure all low-income students maximize the money they receive.

A different proposal, called the “NY Student Plan,” released by the advocacy group Young Invincibles this week, provides one possible solution to help the state’s neediest families. The group argues that rather than offer free tuition to full-time students in families earning under $125,000 per year, lawmakers should increase state funding to cover tuition so that low-income students could use federal aid from Pell grants to pay for books, fees and rent.

Under the plan, substantially more students would receive the maximum state financial assistance benefit. The plan also suggests investing in programs at SUNY and CUNY that can provide the advising and support students need once they get to college.

“The idea here is that more students get more aid,” said Kevin Stump, northeast regional director for Young Invincibles. (The group’s plan also triples the state’s minimum financial award, which means compared to what they receive now, middle-class families would receive more aid.)

It’s unclear whether lawmakers will embrace these ideas. The next test is whether additional support for low-income college students is included in the Assembly or Senate’s one-house budget bills. (An Assembly spokesman said the chamber plans to release its bill on Monday and a Senate spokesman did not provide a date.)

At least some lawmakers appear interested. The Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Democrats that collaborates with Republicans in the state Senate, released a wide-ranging plan that includes re-establishing the “Liberty Scholarship,” which provides help for full-time and part-time students to help offset the cost of non-tuition expenses.

And last week, 30 Assembly members signed onto a letter asking that the Excelsior program cover remaining tuition costs for low-income families, so they can use their Pell grants to pay for non-tuition expenses.

In the Senate, a spokesman for Senator Jeff Klein, who heads the IDC, said college affordability will likely be tackled, but how is still unclear.

College affordability issues more broadly will likely be included in the Assembly’s one-house budget bill and, according to Assemblymember James Skoufis, who drafted the letter, the Assembly majority is “seriously considering” an increase to TAP funding that would allow more students to use their federal Pell grants to cover other expenses like rent and food.

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