Guest Op-Ed: Tuition assistance for middle class must be priority

With graduation season underway, now is the time to raise awareness about one of the fastest growing problems facing our nation.

The average student debt in the United States has grown larger than both auto loan and credit card debt. Since 2004, student loan debt has nearly tripled, with students nationwide surpassing $1 trillion in Federal Student Loan Debt.

According to research on the issue, two-thirds of Americans earning a four-year bachelor’s degree leave college more than $25,000 in debt. Ten percent of students have more than $54,000 in debt. Here in New York State, the average college graduateleaves school carrying nearly $26,000 in debt.

In 2010, unfortunately, overzealous budgeting of a one-party controlled state government led to a $13 billion deficit that resulted in a $49.7 million cut to the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), New York’s program to provide aid for college-bound students. The monetary awards given to needy students were reduced and TAP funding was completely eliminated for graduate students.

Simply stated, the cost of college has become increasingly unaffordable for middle-class students.

That’s why I’ve introduced several key initiatives to help lessen the burden. By expanding tuition assistance eligibility for our middle-class students,and reinstating the TAP program for graduate students, we can begin to provide some of the critical assistance students need.

First, we need to increase the threshold for household income eligibility for TAP beyond the current $80,000 to $100,000, so more middle-class families qualify. This would properly reflect the current tuition prices and inflation values, and make it so more New Yorkers can go to college.

Finally, we need to reinstate the TAP program for graduate students, which was eliminated in 2010. If restored, this program would cost roughly $3 million annually while opening the door for thousands of students hoping to pursue an advanced degree.

The funds to pay for these two proposals are certainly there. This year, the Assembly majority has brought the DREAM Act, which would provide illegal immigrants with tuition assistance, up for a vote three times. If enacted, this would cost state taxpayers a minimum of $20 million.

New York’s focus, however, should be on helping its citizens and legal residents pay for their education. The proposals I have unveiled, not the DREAM Act, should be the priority of the New York State legislature when it comes to helping New York’s students achieve the American Dream.

Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis represents portion of Bay Ridge and Staten Island.

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