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Note: The following essay by William J. Short, director of St. Lawrence's Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) and president of the New York State HEOP Professional Organization, was published in the Watertown Daily Times on February 8, 2006. The views expressed are those of William Short.


I am writing in response to Governor Pataki's proposed state budget for next year, specifically as it relates to the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) at Clarkson and St. Lawrence Universities, the Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP) at SUNY Potsdam, Canton and Oswego, and the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) at all the colleges in the state. As has been the case annually for the last decade, these essential programs are subject to inadequate funding in the Executive Budget.

The proposed New York State Executive Budget calls for a restructuring of TAP, ostensibly to encourage accountability but really with the result of reducing the funding level by some $190 million. While Opportunity Program students (HEOP and EOP) are exempt from these proposed changes, most HEOP programs provide tutoring and counseling support to non-program students as well, and so we have a concern with the approach the Governor suggests.

These cuts come primarily in the form of changing the definition of full-time student status, requirements for certain students to complete between 24 and 30 credit hours before receiving any TAP (and having to take additional loans in the mean time), making loan defaulters ineligible, and changing academic progress and full-time certification practices. Accountability is absolutely essential. As taxpayers and professional educators, we certainly agree that we want to get results for our investment. Indeed, the provisions related to loan defaulters and academic progress definitions make sense.

The issue we take is with the part of the proposal that falls hardest on those least able to afford it, and in some cases begin by withholding aid and requiring students to prove that they are in good faith in the effort. In effect, this means that students are penalized first and rewarded later, treated as though they cannot be trusted with the money.

Consider the arrangement between the student, the institution and the state as a business partnership. All three parties are asked for an investment. The state is asked for financial backing, the institutions for financial backing and an investment of professional time and talent, and the student is asked for money, time and talent as well. The dividend comes after the student graduates and begins paying back - and we already know that Opportunity Program students pay back to the state more than $9 for every $1 invested annually, according to data compiled by the New York State Education Department. This is a powerful partnership indeed.

If one were seeking a new business partnership, would one penalize the other potential partners before rewarding them? What kind of incentive to invest of themselves is it to treat your partners as if they cannot be trusted? How can we ask those least able to afford it to actually increase their cash investment while also reducing the state's investment, when what financially disadvantaged students are most able to bring is time and talent? This will only serve to discourage people before they can even start.

HEOP funding in the Executive Budget is proposed at $22 million state-wide. That is the same level as for the current year, and in fact the same as for 1995. In the last decade, HEOP funding has never been higher than that, and frequently lower. The New York State Education department has requested an increase of $5 million, to $27 million. Over the same decade, the costs of higher education have increased at a rate above the general rate of inflation - and so who is making up the difference between the growing costs and flat state support? Very simply, the other two partners in the business arrangement. HEOP students take out loans and work on campus to contribute to their own education, and very frequently to help support their families as well. The institutions have increased their contribution enormously, so that well over half the cost of attending annually for each HEOP student is now borne directly by the institution. More dollars to each student means institutions are forced to deny more potential students the opportunity to invest of themselves.

The New York State Higher Education Opportunity Program Professional Organization is asking the Assembly and Senate to add the requested $5 million, so that we can be sure more of our best and brightest have the opportunity to realize their potential. As the potential educators, entrepreneurs, and professionals of tomorrow, we will absolutely need their participation. It makes no sense whatsoever to slam shut their only doors of opportunity.

More: Students and staff from St. Lawrence meet with New York State Senator James Wright (R-Watertown) in his office in Albany to discuss education funding issues.

Posted: February 15, 2006


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