United University Professions spent Wednesday championing the state's Tuition Assistance Program, with UUP President Fred Kowal advocating both major structural changes and major funding increases to a program that has been a lifeline – albeit an outdated one - for college students.
"This is an issue that I believe is an issue of justice and fairness," Kowal testified before a hearing of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, chaired by Manhattan Democrat Deborah Glick. He was joined by Steve London, first vice president of the Professional Staff Congress/CUNY. UUP and PSC are NYSUT affiliates.
NYSUT Vice President Andy Pallotta, who oversees the union's legislative initiatives, attended the hearing as a show of support for the union's two largest higher education affiliates.
After the hearing, Kowal and London spoke at a news conference organized in the Legislative Office Building by the TAP Coalition, a group of faith-based organizations, student activist groups and labor that, like UUP and the PSC, is seeking a major overhaul of TAP.
In his testimony, Kowal outlined a three-part plan for bringing TAP into the 21st century, four decades after it was conceived as a state grant program for college students back when the typical college student went directly to college from high school and graduated in four years.
The key points of his proposal include: passage of the New York DREAM Act, an increase of the maximum TAP award for full-time students to $6,500, and expanded TAP aid to three high-needs groups: part-time students, independent adult students, and low-income students who have not been admitted to the state's Educational Opportunity Program.
Budget cuts have eliminated hundreds of slots to the EOP program, which provides special support for high-needs, low-income students. Students not in EOP are limited to eight semesters of TAP eligibility. EOP students are eligible for 10 semesters of TAP aid, which takes into account the special challenges that these students sometimes face in completing college in four years. Yet, as Kowal testified, hundreds of students who would have been eligible for EOP in earlier years are now turned away each year from the program for lack of available slots, yet still cannot benefit from the extended TAP eligibility.
Underlying these problems, as Kowal testified, is the fact that the typical college student no longer exists. Thousands of students who entered the country as undocumented minors are now in New York's public colleges and universities, ineligible to apply for TAP. Passage of the New York DREAM Act – which passed the Assembly last session – would allow these students to apply for TAP.
The maximum TAP award of $5,165 no longer covers a year's tuition at either SUNY or CUNY, which cost in-state students $6,170 and $6,030, respectively. Add to that the fact that the number of part-time and nontraditional students has greatly increased in the past 40 years – two groups that barely qualify for TAP assistance – and the program desperately needs revamping, Kowal said.
"I have spoken often about the underfunding of SUNY, but it goes hand-in-hand with the issue we are discussing today," Kowal stated in the testimony he submitted during the hearing. "Millions of dollars in state aid have been cut from SUNY since 2010, and the result has been catastrophic."
London agreed: "It is a program (TAP) to be proud of, but it has problems. Some of the result of the failure of TAP to keep up with the times. The laws written for TAP were written largely for full-time, dependent students who go straight from high school to college."