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Viewpoints: Investing in higher education will benefit students, entire state

By Robert Mujica

The economic renaissance we’ve seen in Western New York over the past few years has made us believers in potential and possibility.

As Americans grow ever more cynical about Washington’s ability to get things done, New York stands out for what we have accomplished under the leadership of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

New York State recently passed a trailblazing budget that advances economic relief for hardworking New Yorkers, including tax cuts for the middle class, and maintains the economic momentum in Western New York with new investments across the region.

But perhaps the most important component of this budget will have a lasting impact not just here in Western New York, but across the state, and very possibly across the entire nation.

That is because this budget makes New York the first state in the nation to offer free college tuition at our SUNY and CUNY schools for families making up to $125,000 a year – representing roughly 85 percent of families in Western New York.

Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship will address one of the biggest challenges for today’s middle class while ensuring New York has an educated and trained workforce to keep our economy moving forward. And by making a historic investment in our young people, New York has set an example for the entire nation to follow.

The new scholarship will be phased in over three years, beginning for New Yorkers making up to $100,000 annually in the fall of 2017, increasing to $110,000 in 2018, and reaching $125,000 in 2019. New York already provides more than $1 billion a year through the Tuition Assistance Program for low-income students. For thousands of working- and middle-class students who still face an uphill battle to pay for college, this program will close a critical gap in tuition costs.

In today’s economy, a college degree is essential to success. Over the course of a working lifetime, a person with a college degree can expect to earn nearly a million dollars more than a person with a high school diploma. But even as college becomes an increasingly important steppingstone, it is also becoming increasingly expensive. As a result, student debt has emerged as one of the biggest financial burdens on our middle-class families.

The Excelsior Scholarship provides a path to relief for families across the state. By eliminating tuition costs, it will save a family making $100,000 a year as much as $25,800 over four years, or nearly as much as the average student loan debt in New York, which is about $29,000. The program also includes $8 million in funding for e-textbooks to lower costs for our students. Moreover, New York has a debt relief program to cover the first two years of student loan payments for recent graduates who make $50,000 or less. Instead of starting off their careers deep in the red, our graduates will be able to pursue their dreams with little or no debt.

And thanks to this program, more New Yorkers will actually graduate college. Today, only about 9 percent of students at community colleges and 39 percent at four-year institutions graduate on time. We can do better, and the Excelsior Scholarship will help us get there. For many students, a few thousand dollars – like the cost of tuition – can mean the difference between staying in school and dropping out. And since the Excelsior Scholarship program requires students to attend full time, it will incentivize students to commit to their studies – with research showing that full-time students are more likely to succeed in college and graduate.

An investment in higher education is an investment in the future of our economy. The Excelsior Scholarship will equip more New Yorkers with the skills they need to fill the jobs of tomorrow. And by ensuring our students live and work in-state for the number of years they receive the scholarship, we are guaranteeing this investment pays dividends for New York.

Some critics claim that New York is treating private schools unfairly. That’s just not true. Recognizing the valuable role that private colleges play, this year’s budget provides them with $400 million, more than all but one state, to support some 90,000 students, adding to the $2.4 billion the state has invested in private education since 2011.

The future of our state depends on having workers who are prepared to tackle the challenges of tomorrow, and to seize the opportunities that are emerging in a high-tech economy. With the Excelsior Scholarship, we are giving more people a chance to earn a college degree and sending a clear message to the people of New York: We believe in you.

Robert Mujica is director of the Division of Budget for New York State.

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