State lawmakers have their sights set on updating the state's Tuition Assistance Program next year as higher education leaders say more than a decade of reduced investments made the program less effective in helping low-income students.

The state's Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP grant, exists to help low- and middle-income students cover tuition costs at approved colleges. Lawmakers examined the program Tuesday at a public hearing in Albany, looking to increase the income threshold to make more New Yorkers eligible and other updates to the program next session.

"We are losing ground particularly for lower-income as well as middle-income families who are all struggling to keep college affordable," Assembly Higher Education Committee chair Pat Fahy said Tuesday.

Lawmakers say they'll consider a constitutional amendment and larger legislative package to update the program to make up for the years of underfunding. 

It's been almost 50 years since the launch of the state's Tuition Assistance Program, giving $662 million in grants to more than 230,000 students in the 2022-23 budget. TAP funding was increased to $764 million in this year's budget, according to the state Budget Division.

While the cost of higher education has skyrocketed, TAP investments in the state remain hundreds of millions of dollars fewer than in the past, with nearly $1.3 billion allocated for the program in 2007 compared to $764 million today. Lawmakers said Tuesday it's a trend they want to reverse. 

"We have work to do," Fahy said. "TAP used to cover all public tuition costs up until 2011."

The assemblywoman wants to see the TAP grant income threshold increased to $110,000 a year and double the minimum award to $1,000. She says it's imperative to keep college affordable and increase New Yorkers seeking higher education to boost the economy.

State budget leaders earlier this month said Gov. Kathy Hochul does not intend to cut spending in health care or education amid a projected $4.3 billion budget gap next year. That includes avoiding cuts in higher education spending, budget officials said Tuesday.

"At the direction of Governor Hochul, over the past two years the state has made historic investments in education, including fully funding Foundation Aid for the first time in state history," Budget Division spokesman Tim Ruffinen said in a statement. "At the same time, Governor Hochul’s vision to transform the state’s higher education system to become the best and most equitable in the county is spearheaded by $2.4B in new capital funding for SUNY and CUNY included in the enacted budget. As we begin in the budget making process for next year, the state wants to preserve those investments in the programs that New Yorkers rely on most."

Panelists told lawmakers Tuesday the $80,000 income limit for families to be eligible for TAP was created more than 20 years ago, and an increase is long overdue.

"If [the program] had moved up with inflation, that income threshold would be $145,000," SUNY Chancellor John King said Tuesday. "So there's a whole segment of the New York state population between $80,000 and $145,000, those are middle-income families that really could use that help to afford the cost of their education. I don't think of that as a cost so much as an investment." 

King says he's urged Hochul to focus SUNY investments in her executive budget to improve research, health and science industries and semiconductor manufacturing.

"The reality is, in such a large budget it's a pretty modest investment to grow the TAP program," King added.

The SUNY chancellor also backs a proposal to change state law and mandate high school seniors complete the Free Application For Federal School Aid, or FAFSA form, to maximize aid given to New York students. He says if eight other U.S. states, like California, have the policy, New York should, too.

"Last year in the state, New York students left $200 million of federal aid on the table because of not completing the FAFSA," King said.

The state Education Department did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday if department's support mandating high school seniors complete the FAFSA financial aid form, or which state agency should oversee a change.

Other panelists suggested indexing the program to inflation, and combining several of the state's scholarship programs to boost TAP — ideas that will require research and discussion as budget talks heat up. 

United University Professionals president Fred Kowal wants the award to be able to be used for other student fees and expenses like housing to improve access to aid.

"We are having conversation with folks on the second floor," Kowal told Capital Tonight on Tuesday after delivering testimony. "We are hopeful the governor continues to expand funding for SUNY to make up for lost years."

He says it's a critical way to boost enrollment numbers and retain students through graduation.

Fahy argues strengthening the program must be done next year in wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision striking down affirmative action, or use of race as a factor in college admissions, and the state's looming $4.3 billion budget deficit.

"We have to be strategic with the investment. We're only going to turn around that deficit if we have tax-paying workers employed in the state

About 53% of students at SUNY schools pay no tuition because of TAP awards, with more at CUNY schools, according to Fahy's office.