Cuomo proposes free SUNY, CUNY tuition for eligible students

The plan offers free tuition to hundreds of thousands of middle- and low-income students.
en. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at LaGuardia Community College, Jan. 3, 2016.
en. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at LaGuardia Community College, Jan. 3, 2016.

Categories: News

College presidents and student leaders Tuesday praised Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to make public colleges and universities tuition free for students from families with income of $125,000 or less.

Republican state senators, however, raised concerns about how the program would be paid for and what would be asked of students. One local senator slammed the plan as a pander to the “progressive far left.”

Cuomo, who rolled out the proposed Excelsior Scholarship as the first on his State of the State road show, cited the challenges students face in affording college and the high burden that comes with the average debt load of $30,000 for students leaving State University of New York schools.  

“The debt is so high it’s like starting with an anchor tied to your leg,” Cuomo said in announcing the plan alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in New York City.
Sanders said the “revolutionary” plan, if approved by state lawmakers in New York, could “reverberate around the country” and send a message to young kids that college is achievable no matter their family’s income.

College presidents and student leaders at schools in and around the Capital Region said they were excited about the announcement — even if they awaited more details.  SUNY officials, Chairman H. Carl McCall and Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, in a joint statement said the proposal “takes college affordability to a dramatic new level.” Even U.S. Education Secretary John King, former New York education commissioner, got in on the praise with a statement applauding Cuomo for “expanding the doors of opportunity” to more New Yorkers.

Schenectady County Community College President Steady Moono said he knows of students that weren’t able to re-enroll for spring classes this year because even a few hundred dollars were too difficult to absorb in tight personal budgets. Some students work full-time jobs to help pay tuition at SCCC.

“I think this becomes a critical game-changer for a good percentage of our students,” Moono said of the proposal. He said school officials estimate the program would apply to about 2,300 SCCC students — or just under half of the student body. The school’s tuition this year was $1,860 a semester, or $3,720 for a full year.

“We talk about community colleges being affordable, but I never refer to them as being cheap, because there is a percentage of our people that we know have the desire, have the ability, have the intellect, have the capacity to take advantage of community college, but they can’t because they can’t afford it,” Moono said.

Dustin Swanger, president at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, said he supported any assistance that helped lower-income students afford a college degree. If the plan came to fruition, Swanger said, community colleges would need to double-down on the niche they have carved out as providing skills-based education in a supportive environment for all students. The “affordability” argument alone won’t cut it if community colleges are competing against four-year institutions that can offer many student tuition-free education.

“It will be more competitive if you don’t have to pay tuition at any place … but there is still an important role for community colleges to play,” he said. “

The scholarship would supplement federal grants and the state’s existing tuition assistance program, which already provides nearly $1 billion in tuition aid, to cover the remaining tuition for eligible students. The governor estimates around 940,000 households would benefit from the scholarship and that it would cost the state around $163 million a year once fully implemented, but that cost would be higher if the program drew in more students.

The plan — named after the Latin word for “ever upward” or “still higher” and not associated with the private online college by the same name — would be phased-in over three years, benefitting families with income up to $100,000 in fall 2017, increasing to $110,000 in 2018 and going up to $125,000 in 2019; and the scholarships would apply to both new and existing eligible students, according to the governor’s office.

While the program would guarantee free tuition for certain students, it still won’t mean a free education. At most schools, paying tuition is only one part of the fiscal battle. Housing, meals and fees are often more expensive than tuition. At the University at Albany, a full-time, in-state student last semester would have paid just over $3,200 in tuition. But fees, housing and meals would have added another $7,800 to their bottom line.

“Don’t forget, if you go away to college, there are more expenses than tuition,” Swanger said.

The student body presidents at both SCCC and UAlbany were also pleased with the governor’s proposal. Margaret Ketchen, SCCC student government president, said the plan would encourage residents past traditional college age to consider going back to school to finish a degree or earn a specialized certificate.

Felix Abreu, UAlbany Student Association president, would have benefitted from the program if it had been in place while he worked toward becoming the first of 11 children to earn a college degree.

“Providing students hope and a chance to still be able to pursue dreams despite coming from low-income families and having overcome a lot of challenges, I stand behind that,” he said.

Republican lawmakers — Sen. George Amedore of Rotterdam and Sen.-elect Jim Tedisco of Glenville — however, raised questions Tuesday about how the scholarship program would be paid for and what would be asked of the students who benefitted from it.

Tedisco said he could only support the program if it included residency requirements both before and after a student received the tuition-free college education. There should be a “look back” to make sure students weren’t moving into the state just for the free education, he said, and students who benefit from the program should be expected to stay in New York after graduation — two years for students that received a two-year degree and four years for student who received a four-year degree — or pay back the state for the scholarship.

“It’s not only about getting kids a great education, it’s about keeping them in New York when they get that great education,” Tedisco said.

Amedore was harsher with his criticism, calling the proposal a “good sound bite” and “wedge issue” tailored to win Cuomo political points with the “far left.” He said lawmakers would be better off easing the state’s tax burden and lifting regulations that increase operational costs to run the public universities and colleges.

The state should also increase the emphasis on vocational education at intermediate grades, so students learn skills that will assist them in future careers and not leave the debt-burdened toting a liberal arts degree with no immediate use, Amedore said.  

“State government needs to do everything possible to make New York colleges more affordable for everyone — not free for some,” Amerdore said. “Nothing is ever free, so who is going to pay for it?”

2016-2017 Tuition Costs (full school year)

– University at Albany: $6,470
– Schenectady County Community College: $3,720
– Fulton-Montgomery Community College: $4,200
– Hudson Valley Community College: $4,300
– SUNY Cobleskill: $6,470
– SUNY Adirondack: $4,176

These costs are for in-state students that meet community college local sponsorship rules and do not include room and board or extra student fees.

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