Mary Beth Labate, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges...

Mary Beth Labate, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities.   Credit: AP/Mike Groll

ALBANY — The state is delaying 20% of Tuition Assistance Program funding to public and private colleges statewide, according to an internal state memo, and the schools and the Cuomo administration fear it could become permanent.

A Nov. 30 memo from the state Higher Education Services Corp. said colleges and universities, already financially strapped because of the coronavirus pandemic, must assume the cost of the state’s delay and not reduce students' TAP grants at this time.

"The 20 percent temporarily withheld are not cuts to student awards, but rather a change in the payment schedule made to schools ... at this time, the remaining 20 percent of payments for affected academic years will remain temporarily withheld," the memo said.

The $931 million Tuition Assistance Program is the state’s main college financial-aid tool, and its grants are aimed at helping lower-income families and individuals. An independent undergraduate student making $10,000 is eligible for a grant of as much as $5,165. The sliding scale ends at a $500 grant for a family household earning up to $80,000. More than 372,000 New Yorkers receive TAP grants that average $3,049 per eligible student, according to HESC.

"The state said this is a cash management issue, don’t take the money away from the students," said Mary Beth Labate, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities which represents New York’s more than 100 nonpublic colleges. "It certainly would be difficult for a student with those family incomes to make up a 20% gap in their TAP payment, and it would be difficult for many of our schools to fill that hole."

Colleges said the cut could force many schools to lay off employees and reduce the number of sections of required courses available for students. That could hurt community college students seeking a degree and displaced workers seeking new training, said Andrew Pallotta, president of the New York State United Teachers, a union that represents many workers at community colleges.

The Cuomo administration said the delay in TAP grants and whether it becomes a cut depends on uncertain federal funding from Washington. For months, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has sought billions of dollars in federal aid to help fill a $30 billion deficit for state and local governments over two years that developed during the COVID-19 emergency.

"The ongoing federal failure to provide states with funding to offset devastating revenue losses caused entirely by the pandemic has left New York State with no choice but to temporarily withhold portions of most payments," said Cuomo budget spokesman Freeman Klopott. "Presently, students aren’t impacted by this temporary withholding, and it is another reason that the federal government must act to support states so that we can continue to support critical services. Ultimately, in the absence of federal funding, many of these temporary withholdings could become permanent spending reductions."

Larger nonpublic colleges and universities with significant endowments could weather this delay more easily, Labate said. But smaller private colleges, those in the State University of New York and City University of New York systems and community colleges usually have far less reserves to use as a cushion, she said.

The delay in funding comes as colleges were already facing rising costs and often declining enrollment before the coronavirus. The pandemic forced schools to use internet-based instruction and prompted many students to postpone their education.

"Withholding state support for TAP just adds to the financial crisis on college campuses," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, which in part advocates for students on public and private campuses. "For many colleges, unless the state releases the funds, it could result in drastically reduced student services and available classes."

Colleges are trying to adjust to the delay and bracing for a possible cut, said Pallotta of NYSUT. "At this point, we have administrators from community colleges around the state telling our local [union] presidents and staff that they may be hit with a 20% cut," he said.

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