Private colleges say too many strings attached to new state tuition assistance, opt out

June 23, 2017 12:02 AM

New York’s new Enhanced Tuition Awards program (ETA) to aid students at the state’s private colleges and universities is not attracting many takers among schools.

Among five major private institutions in Monroe County, none planned to participate in the initiative in the upcoming school year.

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Nazareth College, Roberts Wesleyan College, St. John Fisher College and the University of Rochester all announced they will opt out. The Rochester Institute of Technology reported it had not made a decision on whether to take part in the initiative, although the deadline for schools to tell the state of their intentions was Monday, June 19.

“It was not exactly… it was not what we are looking for,” explained Mary Beth Labate, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities which represents more than 100 private not-for-profit colleges and universities in New York State.

Elsewhere in the state, Cornell University indicated it will participate in the ETA program, but schools like Colgate University, Rensselaer Polytechnic, Siena College and LeMoyne College have opted out.

The prospect of more aid certainly appealed to students like Alice Bandeian, now studying Geology at the University of Rochester. “More assistance would be great,” she exclaimed.  “The less money I spend the less debt I'll have."

UR student Sarah Austin agreed, calling the process of rooting for financial aid “Rough, yeah,” with a laugh. “The school gives us some aid and our advisers give us more but then some of us have to find our own grants and scholarships and just apply, do the best we can.”

The ETA offers $6,000 a year in aid for students with a family income up to $100,000. It was rolled out this year as a private school version of the state’s Excelsior scholarship program for public colleges but private school leaders said there was little comparison between the two initiatives and that it would not be fair to equate them.

“I would argue it's not,” said Labate.  “I would argue that some of the implementation issues that are involved will make it more difficult for our schools to participate. Those same restrictions do not apply to the Excelsior program.”

For instance, unlike Excelsior for public colleges, ETA requires that private institutions match the state’s contribution, a cost of $3,000 per participating student, a potential jolt to schools that have already drawn up their budgets for the 2017-2018 school year.

“To have a school, at this late date, when they already programmed and budgeted all their financial aid… to ask them at this late date to put even more financial aid money on the table, for many schools, it's simply not in their budget to do,” said Labate.

Unlike Excelsior, ETA also mandates that schools freeze their tuition levels, a limit within which some schools said it would be financially impossible to operate.

“You're also not asking public colleges to freeze their revenue stream in return for getting this money,” said Labate. “You're asking that of private colleges. Public colleges are not freezing the revenue stream. In fact certain students will see their tuition increase under the plan that was enacted by the legislature and, more importantly, they get a significant infusion of new revenue every year from state taxpayers.”

In announcing their decisions, some schools also expressed misgivings about restrictions that apply to both Excelsior and ETA, including requirements that students take 30 credits a year and agree stay in the state after they graduate and work here for the same period that they received the aid.

“Nazareth doesn’t believe in putting limits on our students,” said a statement from Nazareth College. “Nazareth understands the importance of flexibility and choice for our undergraduate students as they continue on their path to their life’s work.”

The residency requirement seemed less daunting to Sarah Austin. “That doesn't sound that bad at all. New York's a nice state,” she said. “I would totally be down to stay around after, for extra money.”

“The requirements for participating students and institutions are restrictive,” said a statement from Roberts Wesleyan, which joined other colleges in pointing to the financial aid the schools provide already. “Last year, the average financial package for a Roberts student was $22,167. One in five students graduated with no debt at all.”

A statement from 55th District senator Rich Funke called both the Excelsior and ETA initiatives “misguided” and “unworkable for many institutions. Funke’s office reiterated his support for expanding the state’s previous Tuition Assistance Program, and accused Cuomo of watering down, rather than enhancing, tuition assistance in the state. The statement went on to say “the Governor’s 'free' SUNY proposal was bad then, is worse now, and it’s no surprise our local private colleges are being forced to opt out.”

A statement from the office of Governor Andrew Cuomo said “The state remains committed to ensuring New York is home to the best-educated workforce in the nation, and we will continue to work with the independent colleges participating in the ETA to drive down tuition rates, increase institutional aid and make college affordable for all New Yorkers.”

The prospect of further dialogue with the state appealed to Labate, who observed, “After years of no one addressing, or very little discussion, on college affordability, it's good to see that college affordability is at the forefront of the national debate… We do think that with refinements it could work a much, much better to the benefit of the students."

The University of Rochester also left the door open to fine tuning and adjustment, even as it opted out of the ETA, saying in its statement: “We will continue to review the program and any future changes, and may ‘opt in’ in future years.”


Charles Molineaux

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