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Students rally to fix ‘TAP gap’

Karen DeWitt

Students in the public university systems rallied this week at the State Capitol to end what they say is a built-in flaw in the state’s student aid policies. They say it’s costing the State and City University systems nearly $150 million a year. But their requests for more money come at a time when the state’s finances are tightening.

The state tuition assistance program, or TAP, offers a maximum aid award of $5,165 a year to students. But it hasn’t kept up with rising tuition prices at many SUNY and CUNY schools. Tuition has been increasing by as much as $200 a year at some of the larger university campuses in the systems. It’s now $6,470 at SUNY and $6,330 at CUNY. 

When TAP doesn’t cover the full costs of the higher tuition, the colleges and universities are required to pay the difference. That is now costing the State University over $67 million and CUNY schools about $74 million.

Barbara Bowen, the president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents 25,000 faculty at CUNY, said it’s a flaw that needs to be corrected.

“This is a structural deficit,” Bowen said. “And that deficit has to be closed. It’s not good policy.” 

Students who spoke at the rally said the so-called “TAP gap” has led to erosion of class offerings and services at campuses.  

Smith Varghese, a Queens College student and New York Public Interest Research Group member, said limited course offerings delay graduations. She also said classes often are overbooked.

“I literally have to go to class 15 minutes early because my class is overcrowded,” Varghese said. “You won’t get a seat.”  

Others students said they face long waits for health care appointments and for answers from understaffed and overstressed financial aid offices.  

Fred Kowal is the president of United University Professions, the union representing professors and other faculty at SUNY. He said the public university systems have never fully recovered from cuts endured in the recession of 2008 and 2009.

“I come from upstate,” said Kowal, who was a professor at SUNY Cobleskill before becoming UUP president. “The economy has stagnated. Where the SUNY campuses are, there needs to be money invested in those campuses for the communities to grow.”

Kowal said he’s in favor of adding new taxes for the state’s wealthiest residents and shifting money from other programs to help fund public colleges and universities.

But the state faces a $2.6 billion budget gap, and the state comptroller has determined that the Legislature cannot add more than $190 million to the governor’s $175 billion spending plan.

Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, the chairperson of the Higher Education committee, also spoke at the rally. She said the maximum limit for TAP awards needs to increase to keep pace with the tuition hikes. And she said it needs to be part of the next state budget.

“We have to close that gap,” Glick said.

The Assembly and Senate will release their spending plans next week, and Glick said she’s pushing to include a proposal to fix the problem.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.