The Community Service Society of New York (CSS) supports the goals of Governor Cuomo to reduce the costs of college for families throughout New York State. We are also pleased to see that the New York State Assembly’s 2017-18 Budget Proposal prioritizes making college more affordable, including increases in the maximum Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) award, and efforts to make the Governor’s proposed Excelsior Scholarship cover more students. In particular, we commend the Assembly for acknowledging the financial burden that non-tuition expenses such as books and transportation can impose on low-income students: its proposal calls for students to retain one-third of their Pell grant to pay for these critical costs. While we fully support allocating more state funds to help low-income students cover the costs of non-tuition expenses, there is a simpler way to achieve this goal.
CSS is publishing a proposal that New York State complement existing and newly proposed aid sources with an additional $1,000 per year in grant aid for students in families earning below $55,000, to be used for qualified non-tuition expenses. Recent research has shown that even relatively small grant awards such as this have been successful in raising college completion rates for low-income students. And the students who would benefit most from this funding are those with incomes below $55,000 that would have most or all of their tuition covered by federal and state grant aid (who would thus receive little to no additional aid through Excelsior) but face non-tuition expenses exceeding a quarter of their family income. Our working paper proposal provides data and analysis that supports the Assembly’s objectives to complement Excelsior with aid to low-income students, while offering a simple and straightforward way to do so.
One major concern with the different college affordability programs that have been proposed is the added complexity they will impose on students who already face a complex web of aid sources that are difficult to plan around. Adding to the mix Excelsior Scholarships and the Assembly’s non-tuition set-aside—on top of existing Pell grant and TAP funding—would result in four inter-related grant aid programs each with different eligibility criteria and income phase-in/phase-outs. This would create a set of state college aid programs that are too complicated for students to navigate, despite the best of intentions.
This year’s state budget should incorporate the key aspects of Excelsior (additional funding to cover tuition expenses) and the Assembly’s proposal (additional funding for non-tuition expenses) in the simplest way possible. One way to achieve this would be to combine all state grant aid into a single program with a single application process and single award notification. This would make it easier for students to predict how much of their own funding they would need to contribute in order to attend the college of their choice: Pell grant funding would be applied to their tuition bill first, followed by state grant aid, with enough left over to allocate up to $1,000 towards qualified non-tuition expenses for eligible students.
We urge the Governor and the state legislature to consider this proposal as a complement to any efforts they consider for moderate and higher income students.
The details of our proposal, including justification for additional funding for non-tuition expenses and a single, streamlined state aid program, can be found online here and below.
Additional data on college affordability from the CSS Unheard Third survey: