Facing a possible $1 billion deficit over the next decade without additional support from New York state, this budget cycle presented high stakes questions for leaders of the State University of New York system.

That picture became clearer with state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins telling reporters Thursday afternoon that the final budget is expected to include about $60 million in operating aid for SUNY. That’s $6 million more than what Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed in her executive budget.

That, along with changes to the tuition assistance program, are seen as marks of progress during a challenging time for higher education in New York.

Before Stewart-Cousins offered and updated picture, SUNY Chancellor John King told Spectrum News 1 while awaiting final budget numbers Thursday morning that the governor’s initial proposal of $54 million in operating aid was “promising."

"We need the state’s help to invest in higher education and invest in our students,” he said. “Costs go up every year, so we need the state to help us manage those costs. Salaries go up every year, we want our faculty to have fair salaries.” 

Further good news in the budget for SUNY, the Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, will receive a boost.

The minimum award for tuition assistance is raising from $500 to $1,000. Qualifications for the state’s TAP grant will increase from families earning $80,000 or less to $125,000 or less.

“As costs have gone up, it’s been a challenge to keep pace with those costs, so really important reforms,” King said.

Along with remaining competitive with other states, he stressed that a need to fill jobs across the semiconductor, health care, and green energy sectors make tuition assistance a key part of the puzzle.

“SUNY plays a vital role in that, and students need help to afford the education that will unlock those careers for them, so expanding TAP will help more New Yorkers prepare for those jobs,” he said.

State Assembly Higher Education Committee Chair Pat Fahy has made increasing TAP funding a cornerstone of her legislative work.

She said increasing the eligibility for independent students was also key.

“That used to be at $10,000. We’ve finally gotten that up to $30,000 we’ve got a lot of work to do, but that’s probably one of the brightest spots in the budget for me, and so grateful that our hard work has paid off,” she said.

Republican Assemblymember Ed Ra told reporters this week that increasing TAP in its 50th year should have been a given all along.

“This is actually a historic year for TAP, it’s a significant anniversary, so it’s kind of surprising it wasn’t in the executive proposal but we want to see that amount modernized,” he said.

Also expected to make it into the final package is $275 million for the Empire AI Consortium, which will be anchored at the University at Buffalo.

King says university partners including SUNY will contribute $25 million each over 10 years.

“We need to make sure artificial intelligence is used to advance the public good, improving health care, advanced manufacturing, helping us address the challenges brought on by climate change,”  he said.

King also expressed support for a proposal expected to make it into the final package to use state-owned land on SUNY campuses to build housing, saying that ideally, faculty who presently have a difficult time finding housing near their campus will benefit from that initiative.