Blair Horner: Colleges Open Up

Aug 21, 2017

All across New York State, colleges and universities are opening up for the Fall 2017 academic semester.  This annual rite of passage is life-changing for the students and deeply impactful for the families.  One key way that college can impact is the cost.

Attending college can add significant economic stress on the families of college students.  Rapidly increasing costs can lead families to go into debt to pay the tuition, housing, books and fees of attending college. 

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York collects data on student loan debt in the state.  It reported that as of 2015, the average college debt in New York is $32,200, higher than the national average of $29,700.

Moreover, the debt steadily increased for a decade. According to a report from the State Comptroller’s office, the average student debt load in New York State increased by more than 47 percent between 2005 and 2015.

Yet, for most people, getting a college degree is more important than ever. 

By nearly any measure, college graduates outperform their peers who have only completed their high school degree.  For example, the average graduate is 24 percent more likely to be employed and average earnings among graduates are $32,000 higher annually and $1 million higher over a lifetime.  And 75 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree vote in presidential election years, compared with about 52 percent of high school graduates.

Clearly, public policies should be focused on making a college education more accessible, while ensuring that families don’t need massive debts to pay for it.

In New York, there have been some innovative steps to address those problems. 

Two years ago, Governor Cuomo advanced a plan to help curtail some of the debts facing students.  The "Get On Your Feet" program offers up to two years of federal student loan debt relief to recent college graduates living in the state.

The program supplements the federal Pay As You Earn loan repayment program and by allowing eligible college graduates living in New York State to pay nothing on their student loans for the first two years out of school.

In addition to offering students some debt relief, earlier this year the governor advanced a plan to lower the cost of tuition for those attending public colleges.  The state’s Excelsior Scholarship program supplements current financial aid programs and allows for free tuition to waive the cost of two- and four-year public colleges and universities for families earning less than $125,000 per year. 

Access to the Excelsior Scholarship will be widened over time, with a household income limit of $100,000 this year, $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 in 2019. However, the scholarship also includes restrictions. It requires students to average 30 credits per year, for example, and finish their degrees on time.

While there has been innovation, both the loan forgiveness program and the “free tuition” program have limits and the numbers of students benefitting is relatively small.  Of course, for the students benefitting, the programs are tremendously important and the programs should expand to meet financial needs in the future.

Yet, the state hasn’t kept up when it comes to providing support for public colleges.  As part of this year’s budget deal, the state agreed to a “maintenance of effort” promise.  Essentially, the state promised not to cut its support for SUNY and CUNY and that the new revenues generated by the tuition hikes would go toward enhancing college programs, not filling in budget cuts. 

But the maintenance of effort pledge does not include inflationary costs or salary increases, which means that millions of dollars for those increases had to come from somewhere, likely students’ tuition.  As a result, both the State University and City University systems will be scrambling to cover state budget shortfalls unless the state provides some relief. 

Before the end of session, legislation was passed that fills the state gap.  Given the extraordinary increase in state revenues over recent years, it makes sense that the state should be enhancing its support for public higher education, instead of hitting up college students and their families. 

Innovative programs to help students attend college are important improvements, but unless the state ponies up more of its share, students will end up paying more anyway or services will shrink.

The new semester offers new promise to college students. Let’s hope that the state adds more support to help make those promises realities.  

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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