Lawmakers Question Governor’s Higher Ed Spending Plan

JGovernor Andrew M. Cuomo presents his fiscal year 2021Executive Budget in Albany (Darren McGee- Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

New York lawmakers held a budget hearing Tuesday on the governor’s spending proposal for the state’s public universities and community colleges.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget calls for a $1.2 billion boost in spending on higher education through spring 2021, compared with last year’s budget. That includes a 6.5% increase in funding to the State University of New York and a 10.8% increase to the City University of New York.

The Legislature’s finance committees heard from state higher education officials at the hearing Tuesday on the Democrat’s spending proposal. Lawmakers face a deadline to pass a budget by April 1.

Several lawmakers and advocacy groups Tuesday questioned Gov. Cuomo’s proposal to increase income eligibility for the tuition-free Excelsior Scholarship at the State University of New York, which serves 424,000 students at 64 campuses, and the City University of New York system and its 275,000 students. The program provided over $98 million in Excelsior scholarships to 25,100 students in the 2018-2019 school year.

The governor is also calling for boosting tuition awards to New York residents attending private colleges in the state. The governor’s plan would increase the maximum income threshold for those programs from the current $125,000 to $135,000 for the academic year starting in 2021. That limit would then jump to $150,000 the next year.

Assembly members Deborah Glick and Harvey Epstein, both Democrats, said the state should focus on helping financially struggling students.

Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Group, said the state should also look at whether the Excelsior Scholarship could do more to serve New York students.

The number of Excelsior scholarships awarded varies across the state, according to a review of 2017 and 2018 state data. Bronx Community College and Hostos Community College each awarded 10 Excelsior scholarships both of the two years, while the State University of New York at Buffalo awarded over $5 million in nearly 1,800 scholarships in the 2018-2019 academic year.

“In terms of the financial aid needs of NY college students, Excelsior falls far short,” Horner said in an email.

Overall, CUNY colleges saw $13.6 million in Excelsior scholarships for roughly 3,700 students. SUNY, meanwhile, saw over 21,000 scholarships totaling $84 million.

Cuomo’s administration said expanding the tuition-free scholarships will help more people to attend college with less debt.

Cuomo wants to continue restricting public universities from raising undergraduate tuition more than $200 each year.

Much of the proposed increase in higher education spending comes from $1.9 billion in new appropriations for capital projects in the public university systems. Cuomo is calling for a new capital matching grant program for new construction and major renovations at the universities.

His budget ends $2.5 million of state funding for a program geared at helping community college students to quickly earn their degrees at CUNY and $2 million for the Family Empowerment Community College pilot program. He proposes less funding for child-care centers, small business development centers, graduate diversity fellowships and other state-operated college programs.

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