New York colleges and universities have opened and with it comes the excitement of new educational and personal experiences for the students. But for nearly all, the escalating cost of attending college and the resulting student debt looms.
By now it is well established that getting a college degree can be extremely costly.
The cost of college has steadily increased at a pace that exceeds the nation’s inflation rate. Nationally, over the past 20 years the average cost of college tuition and fees at public four-year institutions has risen 9% annually on average. The rise in tuition between public institutions and independent (private) ones is different, but the conclusion is the same – the costs of attending college have been rising for decades and are increasing at a rate faster than overall inflation.
With college costs rising at a rate faster than the incomes of most Americans, college students and their families took out loans to make up the difference. As costs rose, so did the amount borrowed. The impact has been well documented. The data paint a troubling picture:
- Nearly 44 million Americans have federal student debt.
- In total, the U.S. has over $1.77 trillion in outstanding student debt.
- Student loans are the second-largest type of consumer-generated debt behind mortgages, accounting for 9.5 percent of the nation’s consumer debt.
- Over half (54 percent) of college undergraduates finish college with student loan debt.
The debate over how to address this enormous debt burden has been among the top domestic concerns for the Biden Administration. Yet, the underlying discussion over how best to reduce the initial costs of attending college has been more directly a state issue.
New York, like the rest of the nation, has for decades shifted the costs of higher education from the public to the families of college students. During that time, the shift was largely done out of sight, during last minute state budget deals. The burden-shift policy became most explicit during the Cuomo Administration. The former governor made a big deal out of the need for “predictable tuition” increases and drove the state toward adopting that approach starting in 2011. For the next decade nearly constant hikes raised tuition rates by more than 42%, yet direct state aid to colleges was largely stagnant.
For five decades, New York has helped to offset the costs of attending college through its Tuition Assistance Program, known as “TAP.” TAP was established in the early 1970s as the way of directing financial aid to the neediest students in both the public and independent college sectors. In its first academic year (1974), the program offered $1,500 for the neediest students to cover tuition. While the $1,500 was in excess of the maximum public tuition charged at the State University and the City University of New York, the goal at that time also was to help stabilize the costs of attending college in the independent (private) college sector. At that time, the existing state support for independent colleges and universities covered only 22% of private tuition (the maximum state financial aid award to a private college student prior to TAP was $600). The goal of the then-new TAP assistance was to boost that support to cover half of independent college tuition for the neediest students.
Today, the maximum TAP award does not cover public college tuition and comes nowhere near half of the costs of tuition costs for independent colleges. Add to that the significant additional fees charged at public institutions, which are not covered by TAP, and books and housing, it’s easy to see how college has become increasingly unaffordable – unless loans are taken out.
A lot has changed on college campuses since the early 1970s. A college degree is far more necessary than it was five decades ago. Today’s college students are older, more likely to be female, and far more diverse than in 1974. Also, a lot more students have to work to afford college (in addition to the increased debts).
In one of the more bizarre policy decisions, despite an increased need for more students to go into graduate programs, in 2010, the state ended TAP assistance for graduate programs.
With the fifty-year anniversary of TAP, it makes sense for Governor Hochul and state lawmakers to modernize the program to fit the needs of today’s college students – both undergraduate and graduate – and to do it in a way that will help stabilize both public and independent colleges in New York.
Educating the state’s future workforce and citizens is not only a powerful rationale for making college more affordable, but investments in higher education also pay dividends as an economic strategy – every dollar of public investment gets paid back in multiple dollars of economic activity. The governor and the Legislature can act to make sure TAP’s 50th anniversary is a golden one that lays the foundation to meet the needs of students over the next half century.