By John J. Hurley
In 1970, I was accepted to St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute. I was thrilled, until my father gave me the bad news: He simply couldn’t afford St. Joe’s.
I was crushed. But a few weeks later I took a paper route and paid my own way through St. Joe’s.
Family finances weren’t much different when I went on to Canisius College, but thanks to assistance from New York’s new Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and a combination of jobs, I was able to pay my own way.
I often recount this journey to students at Canisius because being financially responsible for my education at 13 was a life-changing experience. It taught me the importance of setting goals and achieving them. I learned to have “some skin in the game,” and got every ounce of value out of my education because I paid for it.
I have thought about this as Gov. Andrew Cuomo presses forward with his proposal to give some New Yorkers free tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools. Part of the justification for “free tuition” is the governor’s perception that there is an exponential student debt problem that is the root of so many evils in our state.
Let me be crystal clear: We at Canisius are concerned about the cost of higher education and concerned about student debt. But student debt is not the root of all evil. It represents a necessary piece of the equation in financing higher education. When I entered Canisius in 1974, the maximum grant available through TAP covered two-thirds of the average tuition at an independent college in our state. Unlike TAP, which has been increased only once in the last decade, we have increased our financial awards substantially every year in order to ensure access and affordability. Government assistance has lagged, and colleges and students and their families have been forced to fill the gap with financial aid and debt.
The average Canisius student who borrows graduates with $25,000 in debt, less than many SUNY schools. Students take on these obligations because they see the value of the education. And every study confirms that the students who approach debt responsibly and graduate are able to pay back their loans and reap a significant return on investment. Canisius recently achieved its lowest loan default rate ever – 3.2 percent – because of the quality of the students we recruit and the education we provide. They approach their education at Canisius as an investment in their future. They have skin in the game.
Our proposal to improve TAP by increasing the maximum award and income-eligibility limits will make free tuition at SUNY and CUNY available to many more students with financial need, while preserving students’ rights to choose the school – public or private – that best fits their needs.
Some have suggested that the state can increase TAP and provide free tuition at SUNY and CUNY. While well-intentioned, such a proposal would leave students who thrive at places like Canisius at a distinct financial disadvantage and could push them into public institutions based on finances rather than “best fit.”
John J. Hurley is president of Canisius College.