This is the time of year when families across the country are struggling to find the right colleges for their soon-to-graduate sons and daughters. There’s some promising news on the horizon for some of those students, but not all. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed that students attending New York state’s public colleges, the SUNYs and CUNYs, be able to do so with free tuition, provided they meet certain family income thresholds.
This is great news for families who are barely getting by, but one other group should be included in any new scholarship program, and that is students attending New York’s private colleges. I’m not suggesting that taxpayers pay the full tuition for them, but rather that whatever scholarships are available to students be allowed to be used at any private or public college or university in the state. It is a longstanding policy in New York to treat all students equally when it comes to student aid.
Public colleges in New York City enjoy widespread backing because of the large number of city legislators who strongly support the City University system as the best hope for an affordable education. But New York students and taxpayers have long benefited from a strong system of public and private colleges, and the state has been an important partner in this regard. Private colleges have always had strong legislative support for students in need, and many students decide where to go based on how big a break they can get on tuition combined with special aid programs. With little fanfare, private colleges give major scholarship dollars to help students find a home.
How much do independent colleges and universities spend to make tuition affordable for their students? In 2014-15, they gave out $5.1 billion in financial aid, and the numbers are growing each year. High school graduates who are accepted at public colleges often combine their school grants with money from programs such as the Tuition Assistance Program. TAP is a wonderful program that is available to all students, no matter what college or university in the state they choose. It could be expanded to give all students a better shot at an affordable education.
It takes many sources of funding to get the average high school student up to the next level of educational. If the State Legislature passes a free-tuition program for SUNY and CUNY schools, it’s critical that legislators not leave behind students for whom private colleges provide the best academic, social and career fit.
Unless you’re the parent of a college-bound student, you may know little about private colleges. There are more than 100 private, nonprofit colleges and universities across the state. Downstate residents often think of the private educational sector as just Columbia and New York University. But from Long Island and Westchester to Buffalo, residents have a choice of scores of smaller campuses boasting many high-quality programs.
To give you an idea of the size of the private-college universe, there are nearly 500,000 students attending those schools. Upstate you’ll find that in most towns where there’s a college, it’s the only major employer. Without a college, those places would be ghost towns. These nonprofits generate nearly $80 billion in economic activity and employ more than 406,000 people.
Long Island’s private colleges, such as the New York Institute of Technology; Hofstra, Adelphi and Long Island universities; and Molloy and St. Joseph’s colleges, have a total enrollment of 44,500, employ 20,700 people and have an annual payroll of $1.1 billion. With the constant flow of jobs in and out of Long Island, private colleges become even more critical to the survival of our region. The recent closure of Dowling College has hurt the local area in many ways.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have volunteered my time and energy as a trustee at Hofstra for over 25 years, and I’m dedicated to seeing that New York’s students have the best opportunities, including our diverse and high-quality private colleges. As Cuomo proposes and the State Legislature debates a new budget, I urge them to consider a significantly expanded program of student aid that treats all New Yorkers of similar economic circumstances the same, giving them the best chance to pick the college or university that makes sense for their talents and aspirations.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.