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Advocates Push for Reform of New York's TAP: Program Leaves Out Many Needy Students

Students assemble outside of City Hall, demanding TAP reform and passage of the New York State DREAM Act.
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New York’s Tuition Assistance Program has made the dream of a college education a reality for hundreds of thousands of CUNY students, but the more than 40-year-old program needs to be reformed to meet the current needs of college students.

TAP must “meet the needs of today’s students,” said PSC First Vice President Steve London, when he testified before the State Assembly’s higher education committee recently. “The laws written for TAP were written largely with full-time, dependent students – who went right from high school to college – in mind,” London said. But “today a great number of students...don’t fit that mold.”

Stark Statistics

The PSC is part of the Coalition to Reform the NY Tuition Assistance Program, a group of 33 labor, higher education and student activist groups leading an effort to change the state’s largest financial-aid program. Their reform agenda aims to make TAP more accessible to part-time students; to those who are financially independent and working in low-wage jobs; and to New Yorkers who are undocumented immigrants.

Advocates who are urging an update point to some stark numbers. Most New Yorkers don’t realize that those who attend college part-time are virtually shut out of receiving TAP assistance. For example, in 2013, out of the 40,000 students attending CUNY community colleges part-time, only 91 students received TAP assistance. No, that’s not a typo – the total was less than 100 students, according to a detailed report from the Center for an Urban Future, “Tapped Out,” which was released last year.

Financially independent students without dependents cannot receive TAP if their annual income is more than $10,000 adjusted (or $15,000 gross income). And while thousands of undocumented immigrant students call New York their home and qualify for in-state tuition, they are excluded from State financial aid.

Hostos Community College student Lizayda Rodriguez is an example of how TAP fails those attending college on a part-time basis. Now in her first year in Hostos’ nursing program, she previously received TAP while attending school full-time. But now, because not enough of her required courses are offered this semester, Rodriguez is enrolled part-time.

Expanding Aid Eligibility

“This is the semester that I would need [TAP] the most, and this is the semester that I don’t qualify for it,” Rodriguez told Clarion. This year she has to pay for a $500 nursing assessment test, uniforms, textbooks and equipment, totaling about $1,000 altogether. “I was having financial trouble before,” Rodriguez said. “Now, it’s stressful figuring out how I’ll pay for everything.”

“Over the last two decades, average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges in New York have risen 127% while students continue to foot the bill,” wrote Kevin Stump, former chair of the Coalition to Reform TAP, in a December op-ed for Gotham Gazette. “Since 2008, New York State cut nearly $2 billion to higher education.” Over the same period tuition at CUNY was raised by $1,700, wrote Stump, a director at the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network. With tuition rising so sharply, when TAP leaves out low-income students it threatens their ability to continue in college.

Of the items on the coalition’s agenda, the fight to pass the NY DREAM Act, so far unsuccessful, has received the most legislative attention this year. If New York passed the NY DREAM Act it would join other states like California and Texas that allow undocumented high school graduates to access state-funded financial aid.

“If I could get help with TAP, it would be less pressure,” Cintya Jimenez, an undocumented student at Hostos, told Clarion. Jimenez had to work for seven years after she graduated high school before she had saved enough money to start attending college. That money’s now running out, she said, and she hoped the NY DREAM Act would allow her to apply for help from TAP. “It’d be a relief not to think every time about how I’m going to pay for each semester, if I can pay it on time, or if I’m going to miss the deadline,” Jimenez said.

Efforts to include funding for the NY DREAM Act in the 2015-2016 State budget were unsuccessful, but proponents of the measure say they will continue to seek its passage in the rest of this legislative session, which ends June 17. CUNY officials say that 6,500 undocumented students attended CUNY in Fall 2013; advocates say the total number is likely far larger.

Financial-aid specialists at CUNY agree that TAP is in need of reform. Current requirements for TAP eligibility are complicated and do not provide “a cohesive whole that works together logically,” said Queens College’s Associate Director of Financial Aid Services Sydney Lefkoe. It becomes a challenge “for some of our neediest students to get adequate grant aid,” Lefkoe told Clarion.

Proposals

Under TAP’s current rules, Lefkoe and colleagues explained, most of a financially independent student’s income is assumed to go toward educational expenses, even if their pay is very low: the resulting award is much lower than awards for students who are dependent on their parents. And coalition activists note that part-time students face severe obstacles to receiving TAP, such as having to enroll full-time for a year before they can qualify, hitting their maximum allotment after six or eight semesters.

The proposals from the Coalition to Reform TAP include raising income thresholds and providing the same maximum award to independent students and eliminating the requirement that students attend school full-time for a year before they can qualify for part-time tuition assistance, as well as increasing the maximum TAP award to cover the full cost of CUNY and SUNY tuition, which TAP currently does not provide.

Coalition activists say that the best opportunity for broad TAP reform may come when the five-year tuition-hike plan now in effect at SUNY and CUNY comes to an end. The coalition plans to continue its push for the NY DREAM Act, as it gears up for a strong TAP reform effort in the context of the upcoming tuition debate.

“The program needs to be reformed...because the needs of college students have changed,” said Donavan Borington, a Baruch student who is vice chair for fiscal affairs for CUNY’s University Student Senate, in testimony before the Assembly Higher Education Committee. “This change requires the program to evolve if it is to continue to remain effective.”