Kowal tells lawmakers that students and campuses depend on TAP

SUNY’s most vulnerable students, who desperately need the boost of a college education, are also most at risk of never earning their degrees during the coronavirus pandemic, because of funding cutbacks and an increased shift to online education.

UUP President Fred Kowal offered that grim but honest assessment during testimony Sept. 22 before the state Assembly Committee on Higher Education and the Assembly Subcommittee on the Tuition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as “TAP,” a state program that provides a tuition grant. The committees are respectively chaired by Assembly members and New York City Democrats Deborah Glick and Alicia Hyndman, who called the hearing out of a concern over how the pandemic is affecting financial aid.

More than a dozen representatives of higher education unions, advocacy groups, public higher education and state education officials testified.

“If these payments are not being made, those students will be forced to drop out and return home,” Kowal testified as he addressed reports of delayed TAP payments. “Less than one out of five will return. That means we will end up with a lost generation—a permanent underclass.”

Some students who had to return home also returned to isolated parts of upstate New York where high-speed internet access is either nonexistent or spotty, or to urban areas where their families are too poor to have internet access at home, Kowal noted. And this problem is likely to continue throughout the pandemic, which Kowal predicted will last possibly to the end of next year.

“I know there are some who say that online education can solve the problem of the spread of the coronavirus, and it would, but it would also work against these students,” he told lawmakers.


Kowal spoke especially of the thousands of students who participate in SUNY’s two opportunity programs: the Educational Opportunity Program, for low-income, at-risk students, and the Educational Opportunity Centers, which provide job training and college preparatory education to non-traditional and often adult learners, some of whom are returning to school years after leaving without a diploma or a degree.

“This is a matter of social justice,” Kowal said. “We know the students are going be hurt by TAP cuts. It is clear, it is unequivocal and it must be addressed.”

UUP has railed for years against the so-called TAP Gap, which is the portion of SUNY tuition that campuses must waive—and ultimately absorb—for TAP awardees. That gap—the difference between the TAP award and SUNY tuition—is a loss of more than $72 million every year to SUNY’s state-operated campuses. More than 40 percent of students receiving TAP attend SUNY; more than one-third of students at SUNY’s state-operated campuses receive TAP.

And in trying to do the right thing, by admitting promising low-income students regardless of their finances, the campuses with the most TAP recipients have dug themselves into a financial hole.

In 2019, nine campuses, including SUNY Buffalo State, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Morrisville and SUNY Oswego, faced budget deficits caused in part by the TAP Gap.


Kowal told lawmakers that UUP strongly supports a new source of revenue for SUNY, which could come in several ways: a reinstatement of the stock transfer tax; a tax on the state’s richest residents or as a 1 percent tax on SUNY’s college foundations.

But the root cause of SUNY’s budget crisis this year, Kowal said, is the 10 to 15 years of mostly starvation funding to SUNY that preceded the pandemic, and caught the campuses off guard, with few reserves.

“I hear a lot from our 37,000 members, and what I hear more than anything else is frustration when resources have been constrained for so long,” Kowal told the lawmakers. “We’re very proud of TAP. It’s a generous program, the most generous of the state’s financial aid programs, but it’s got to be funded to do the work.”