Op-ed: Make Education More Affordable

Todd S. Hutton, President, Utica College

How can we make a college education affordable for every student deserving of the opportunity?That question has generated considerable discussion, from college trustees sitting around the boardroom table to families sitting around the dining room table.The state Legislature is considering a proposal to expand the Tuition Assistance Program, a source of college funding on which more than 300,000 students in New York depend to finance their higher education. This is encouraging news, especially against the backdrop of five previous years of proposed cuts.For several years, programs such as TAP, which was introduced in 1974 to increase college access to low- and moderate-income students, have been flat lined. TAP for dependent students has not increased in seven years. For nondependent students, the last TAP increase was 16 years ago, and for graduate students, 20 years ago.Today's college students are borrowing from three, four, or even more lenders to make ends meet. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, the average debt load for college graduates in New York state has climbed to nearly $20,000, a figure that has significantly outpaced the growth rate of first-year salaries. In addition to borrowing more, college students are working more than ever — in some cases as many as 30 or 40 hours a week — to finance their education.For the first time in five years, the state's executive budget proposes no cuts to student financial aid. Without question, holding TAP to its current level is a positive first step. However, we need to maximize TAP as well as other time-proven student aid programs such as the Higher Education Opportunity Program, the Liberty Partnerships Programs and the Science and Technology Entry Programs.The Legislature can begin this process in this year's state budget by voting to support the following adjustments to student financial programs:•Increase the TAP maximum award to $6,000 for the neediest dependent undergraduate students and to $4,000 for the neediest nondependent undergraduate students, and raise the income eligibility levels.•Increase the TAP maximum award for the neediest graduate students to $1,000.•Support HEOP, Liberty Partnerships Programs and STEP/C-STEP at a rate equal to or greater than the general rate of inflation.If a college education is the gateway to upward mobility in career and life — and comparisons between the lifetime earnings of college graduates and those who don't graduate from college support this belief — we must open more doors to that opportunity, and stop denying access on the basis of financial hardship.