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Reformers Urge TAP Changes: Outdated Rules Penalize Many Students

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The State of New York created the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) in 1974 to provide needs-based aid to the State’s college students. In the 40 years since, TAP has helped 4 million New Yorkers pursue higher education. But a new statewide coalition says that too many of today’s college students are not well served by TAP, and that the program is due for an update. Looking to build on TAP’s past success, the coalition is advancing several related proposals for reform.

Jaritza Geigel, a 23-year-old freshman at LaGuardia Community College, lives on her own, earns more than $15,000 per year and is not eligible for financial aid from TAP.
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The Coalition to Reform the NY Tuition Assistance Program includes the PSC, CUNY’s University Student Senate, the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), New York Students Rising, the NY State Youth Leadership Council, United University Professions (the PSC’s counterpart at SUNY), SEIU 32BJ, the New York State School Counselor Association, CUNY Coalition for Students with Disabilities, and a number of other student, community, labor and professional organizations. While not members of the coalition, the CUNY and SUNY administrations have issued reports on TAP that identify areas for potential reform.

Lots of Allies

Advocates say the program now falls short for hundreds of thousands of students, often thwarting the ability of low-income individuals to get a college education.

TAP assists more than 300,000 college students in New York every year, including 75,000 at CUNY. However, many students who badly need financial help go unserved because of rules designed with “traditional” college students in mind: those who go to college full-time straight from high school, expect to graduate in four years, and are financially dependent on their parents.

“There’s a lot to change in regard to TAP,” said Gail Baksh-Jarrett, senior director of Enrollment and Student Financial Services at LaGuardia Community College. “There needs to be some relevance to current economic times.”

TAP falls short for today’s college students, especially at CUNY and SUNY, in several ways.

First, its rules stack the deck against students who have work or family obligations that keep them from going to school full-time. TAP recipients must have been full-time students for at least one year before they can qualify for potential assistance, from a very limited pool of funds, as a student enrolled part-time. As a result of this and other regulations, fewer than 100 of 83,000 part-time CUNY students received part-time TAP awards in 2011.

Warren Soare, director of the Brooklyn College SEEK program
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According to Warren Soare, director of the Brooklyn College SEEK program, which provides comprehensive academic support to 850 low-income students who depend on TAP and Pell grants to cover college expenses, students often sign up for a full-time course load in order to qualify for TAP money when they ought to be going to school part-time. “There are times when they should be enrolling for six hours instead of 12,” Soare told Clarion. “Sometimes they aren’t able to handle a full schedule and don’t do well academically.”

Students who are single, have no children and are financially independent of their parents are disqualified from receiving TAP money if they earn more than $15,000 per year, even if they live independently of their parents.

“We need equity between dependent and independent students,” Baksh-Jarrett told Clarion. “That would be my number one priority.”

The TAP coalition is calling on the State to lift the cap on what independent earners can make to $35,000 per year, and to increase their maximum award to the same amount as that for married students and single students with children.

Out of Pocket

For Jaritza Geigel, a 23-year-old freshman at LaGuardia who works 30 hours a week, reforming TAP to better serve students who are financially on their own couldn’t come too soon. “I really can’t afford to pay out of pocket what I’m paying,” Geigel said of her $4,200 in annual tuition. Each month she juggles rent and bills while making payments on a student loan from a previous foray into college. Her income barely covers her monthly expenses, and being ineligible for TAP makes it much more difficult to get by.

Geigel is seeking a degree in communications while she works as an organizer with Make the Road New York, an immigrant-led group that works to empower low-income New Yorkers and which is part of the push for TAP reform. “[Lawmakers] need to figure out how to fix this,” she told Clarion. “They’re not taking into account how much it costs to live.”

Students are also hobbled by a rule that cuts off TAP funding for most students after eight semesters, forcing many of them to take out student loans to finish their studies. The coalition is calling for the State to extend an extra two semesters of TAP eligibility to students who are identified as educationally disadvantaged by the State but are not enrolled in New York’s limited equal opportunity programs (SEEK, College Discovery, and HEOP, which already extend TAP for two additional semesters).

Undocumented immigrant students are also seeking TAP reform. CUNY has more than 6,500 undocumented immigrant students like Teonia Fitten who are not eligible for either federal or New York State financial assistance. Fitten’s parents brought her to the US from Jamaica when she was 10 years old. Now a sophomore at Bronx Community College, she is slated to graduate later this spring with an associate degree, thanks in part to a privately funded scholarship she received through the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) initiative.

“That was pure luck,” says Fitten, who would like to continue on to a four-year college at CUNY or elsewhere but currently lacks the funds to do so.

CUNY, the PSC and a number of other TAP coalition partners are calling for passage of the New York State DREAM Act, legislation that would make TAP money available to undocumented New Yorkers pursuing college study. Supporters have urged the legislature to enact this reform for several years; this year, they say, it has an improved chance of passage.

‘Many Obstacles’

“This is supposed to be the land of opportunity, yet there are so many obstacles and barriers put up in the way of getting an education,” commented Fitten.

A basic problem with TAP today is that its awards have not kept pace with rising tuition. The maximum award of $5,000 per year has remained unchanged since 2001, with a one-third drop in real value due to inflation. During that time, tuition for a full-time CUNY senior college student has climbed to $5,730 per year and is set to increase by an additional $300 every year through 2016, for an eventual total of $6,330.

The 2011 State law that mandated the current wave of annual tuition increases also requires CUNY to make up the difference between the top TAP award and the cost of tuition out of its operating budget. Filling this gap will cost CUNY $42 million in 2014-2015, money that is taken away from CUNY’s other pressing needs.

The coalition is seeking to increase the maximum TAP award to $6,500 per year, and proportionately increase other award schedules as well. The cost of phasing in these increases over five years is estimated at $229 million. It would be money well spent, said Soare.

“Money that’s invested in the TAP program comes back to New York as most graduates stay in New York and become productive citizens and taxpayers,” Soare said.

Albany’s austerity budgets in recent years have inflicted cuts to TAP that the coalition is seeking to reverse, such as an across-the-board $100 per year reduction in TAP awards for students in their final two years of school, or the elimination of TAP funding for graduate students.

TAP reformers also say the program could be made more efficient by simplifying the rules and regulations and improving TAP administration. For example, the State currently has seven categories of awards which the coalition says could be consolidated into four categories.

For Baksh-Jarrett, one easy step would be to eliminate the requirement for filling out paperwork on family income, which she describes as “confusing” for many applicants. The State already has the information it needs via the tax returns it receives, she points out.

It’s one of many ways, she observes, TAP would benefit from being brought into the 21st century. “There are so many areas where there can be improvements,” Baksh-Jarrett said. “Reforming this program is going to be good for students.”