Imagine Houghton without Houghton or Ithaca without Ithaca. Elmira without Elmira or Utica without Utica.

Now imagine Allegany and Olean without St. Bonaventure.

For all the hand-wringing private college officials in the state are doing, and justifiably so, about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to provide free tuition to all SUNY and CUNY colleges, the vastly underplayed story is the devastating impact the initiative could have on small cities and towns in New York.

With almost 600 employees, St. Bonaventure University is one of the largest employers in Cattaraugus County, and certainly one of the top five in greater Olean.

In 2015, the university had a $141 million impact on the region’s economy. Collectively, New York’s private, not-for-profit colleges and universities directly and indirectly employ more than 406,000 people and generate $79.6 billion in economic activity in all regions of the state.

Imagine the ripple effect a boarded-up Bonaventure would have on area businesses, large and small. Places like Dresser-Rand, Cutco and Olean General Hospital depend on our presence as a critical recruiting tool to hire the talent they need. Small businesses depend on us simply to keep their doors open.

IS SUGGESTING the prospect of shuttered dorms and classrooms, a silent Quick Center theater, and an empty Reilly Center Arena on wintry Saturday nights overly dramatic? Maybe. Maybe not.

Plenty of students will still crave the remarkable academic and communal social experience St. Bonaventure offers. But there comes a point when plenty just isn’t enough.

A misconception persists that private schools like St. Bonaventure are largely made up of students of means. That’s not the case at all.

More than 660 New York state students enrolled at St. Bonaventure have a family-adjusted gross income lower than $125,000, the threshold the governor has proposed for students to receive free tuition. That’s almost 40 percent of our total undergraduate students. Even losing 10 percent of those students would have a crippling effect on the university’s financial well-being.

Let’s be clear on one point: We applaud the governor for valuing the importance of higher education and his desire to expand the opportunity to even more people.

However, existing state financial aid — the Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP — already covers the full cost of tuition for low-income students at SUNY and CUNY schools. To enhance TAP or devise a new aid program that only benefits students at SUNYs and CUNYs would limit choice and represent a disturbing shift in the state’s commitment to all New York students.

Investing in TAP for all students holds great promise, however. By increasing the maximum TAP award to $6,500 and expanding the income eligibility to $125,000, more students will be able to attend SUNY or CUNY schools tuition-free, while also maintaining a commitment to the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers for whom private colleges offer the best opportunity for success and economic mobility.

OFTEN IGNORED in this debate is the tremendous bargain students at New York’s private colleges are for taxpayers. The state — you, that is, the taxpayers — spends about $8,860 for each student in the SUNY and CUNY system, compared to approximately $650 for students in private, not-for-profit colleges. That’s a 1,363 percent difference.

The state’s message cannot be limited to access and affordability; it must also include degree completion. The private-college sector led degree completion with a 57 percent four-year graduation rate in 2015 (SBU was 60 percent), as compared with a 50 percent four-year graduation rate for SUNY, 21 percent for CUNY and 38 percent for proprietary schools.

We should be rewarded, not punished, for leading the way on completion.

The governor’s proposal has merit, no question. But his plan has significant flaws that need to be addressed.

Students deserve a choice, and the communities so dependent on the economic vitality private colleges offer deserve a future.

(Dr. Andrew Roth is interim president of St. Bonaventure University.)

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