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College leaders raise alarm of Cuomo's 'major assault on higher education'

A year after criticizing private colleges and universities for charging "exorbitant tuition rates," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo now proposes eliminating $30 million in unrestricted state money those institutions use to provide more financial aid for students.

Presidents of some private colleges – still frustrated by Cuomo's move last year to bring free tuition to public colleges and universities – were further irked by his latest proposal. It comes even as the governor's budget calls for more than $100 million in spending increases elsewhere in higher education, including expansion of the free-tuition Excelsior Scholarships.

One president labeled Cuomo's latest move a "direct assault" on higher education.

"It's ill=advised, it's shortsighted, and it's going to directly hurt college students in this state," said Gary A. Olson, president of Daemen College. Daemen currently gets about $250,000 in Bundy Aid.

"We're disappointed by the proposal. It comes on the heels of several things that cause us to question the state's commitment to independent higher education in New York," said John J. Hurley, president of Canisius College.

Canisius received $271,000 in the current academic year from the Bundy Aid program.

Rather than cut the program, the state should be adding money to it, because it rewards institutions that are effective in getting students to graduate and earn degrees, said the Rev. James J. Maher, president of Niagara, which received about $270,000.

"It's good use of taxpayer money, and it's tied to outcomes," he said. "When we talk about return on investment in terms of higher education, I think programs like this need to be expanded, not cut. That's what's disappointing about it."

The governor proposed using the $30 million in savings from the Bundy program to fund a new round of the Higher Education Capital Matching Grants program, which lets private colleges and universities apply for awards that they can use to improve programs or buildings on their campuses. HECAP wasn't funded in the current budget.

“By shifting funds from Bundy Aid to HECAP, this year’s budget makes state aid more impactful for private colleges, supporting their strategic investments and ensuring that state funding reaches as many students as possible," said Elizabeth Bibi, a Cuomo spokeswoman. "Governor Cuomo will continue to work with private and public institutions to make college as affordable as possible and to make sure cost is never an impediment to educational opportunity.  To that end, this year the governor has proposed nearly $23 million for the Enhanced Tuition Award, enabling more students at private colleges to receive financial assistance to complete their degree.”

The Enhanced Tuition Award program provides up to $6,000 to middle-income students who attend private colleges and universities in New York and was launched in conjunction with the free-tuition Excelsior Scholarships that apply only to students at in-state public colleges and universities in the State University of New York system. The enhanced tuition program requires institutions to match the amount the state pays for each student, up to $3,000, and to freeze tuition for enhanced tuition recipients for the length of their eligibility for the program.

Like Excelsior Scholarship recipients, students who receive it also must reside in the state for up to four years after graduating or their grants could convert to loans. But those constraints have made some colleges wary of opting into the program.

Not at expense of Bundy

The college presidents said they support funding for the Higher Education Capital Matching Grants program, but not at the expense of Bundy Aid.

"They are two distinct programs. They're both very important, but they serve very different purposes," said Terri Standish-Kuon, vice president for public affairs at the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities.

Independent colleges receive less than five percent of the state's higher education budget, while awarding 60 percent of all bachelor's and master's degrees in the state, said Standish-Kuon. The Bundy Aid program was established in 1968 to help stretch the higher education dollar in New York, she said.

"It is outcome-based funding. It is based on degree productivity," she said. "It's a significant public policy tool for encouraging completion."

The Bundy program is a tiny piece of the overall state budget, and the individual campuses receive what amounts to a small portion of their revenue streams. Nonetheless, presidents said the money is not insignificant, especially for colleges struggling to keep their costs down in a market of fewer and fewer college-aged students.

"It comes at a time of great stress in the independent sector. Schools need every source of revenue they can find," said Hurley, Canisius College president.

Students gather to study in the Research and Information Commons at Daemen College. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Free tuition

It's not the first time Cuomo's budget priorities alarmed private college leaders. The presidents were among the loudest detractors of the governor's free-tuition plan, which received $87 million in the current budget, an amount that's scheduled to go up to $118 million in the proposed budget.

A recent Buffalo News analysis of enrollment data showed that the number of students at four-year colleges and universities in Western New York went down by more than 3,000 people from five years ago, with only a quarter of the 16 institutions in the region experiencing growth between fall of 2013 and fall of 2017.

The new free tuition program – implemented last May, after most students had decided on a college – did not appear to steer many students away from private institutions and into public ones for fall 2017. But private colleges were bracing for that possibility this year, when the application process for the next round of free tuition Excelsior Scholarships coincides with admissions and financial aid cycles.

Cuomo also tried last year to cut off Bundy Aid and the state's financial aid program, known as TAP, to any private colleges that raised tuition above $500 or the annual increase in the Higher Education Price Index. Private colleges and universities also were cut out of a new scholarship program for students pursing degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – the STEM disciplines. Only students at SUNY and CUNY schools are eligible for the awards, created in 2014.

"When you take all of this as a package, it's a major assault on higher education," said Olson. "My colleagues and I just cannot understand it. At one time, we thought he was a progressive governor when it came to issues of higher education."

Without Bundy Aid

Without programs like Bundy, college and university leaders said they'll be able to offer less financial aid, which drives up costs for students.

"It's such a small program and a valuable program with really great results," said Kenneth Macur, president of Medaille College, which received about $125,000 in Bundy Aid.

That money allows the college flexibility to enhance financial aid packages for students working through financial hardship, said Macur.

"We can save that student's college career with $5,000," he said. "That's 25 kids we're able to help."

Macur and other presidents said they're counting on legislators to save the Bundy program.

"It's not a signature program so it's possible that in a three-me-in-a-room scenario, it might be rescued," he said. "My hope is that this one gets off the table."

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