Cuomo tuition plan stands to help students make ‘the last mile’

The proposal would cover tuition at state public colleges for low- and middle income New Yorkers
Felix Abreu at the Unive­rsity at Alban­y in New York, Jan. 6, 2017
Felix Abreu at the Unive­rsity at Alban­y in New York, Jan. 6, 2017

NEW YORK — Before every semester, Felix Abreu, a senior at the University at Albany, talks nervously with his mother, a caretaker in the Bronx, about how to come up with the $1,000 he needs to continue his studies.

One of 11 siblings and the first who would graduate from college, Abreu, 22, already gets financial aid. But it is never enough, so he has worked as a student assistant. He has tutored students. He has sold clothing at Forever 21 at the Crossgates Mall. But he never takes anything for granted.

“We are always trying to see how much I need to fill the gap,” said Abreu, a computer science major, who is president of the student association.

Abreu is one of thousands of people who could benefit from a proposal unveiled this past week by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to cover tuition costs at the state’s public colleges for low- and middle-income New Yorkers. The program would meet the difference for students who are already getting federal and state aid but still cannot fully meet their tuition obligations.

“This could really be a game changer,” said Kristin G. Esterberg, the president of SUNY Potsdam, near the Canadian border, which serves students predominantly from low-income families. “There’s a significant number of potential students — folks who live in the North Country — who just think that college is not for them, and find the thicket of financial aid guidelines daunting.”

New York already offers in-state students at its state and city universities, which are attended by 400,000 full-time students, one of the lowest tuition rates in the nation. At four-year State University of New York schools, the tuition for residents is $6,470; at two-year community colleges, it is $4,350. Full-time costs for City University of New York schools are similar.

For the poorest students, whose families make less than $30,000 a year, federal Pell grants, which top out at $5,775 per year, already pay for a large portion of tuition costs.

The state also provides nearly $1 billion via its tuition assistance program, which sets an adjusted gross income limit just under $100,000. Those awards are capped at $5,165; many grants are smaller.

But as broadly envisioned, Cuomo’s plan, called the Excelsior Scholarship, would be aimed at students and their families who made an adjusted gross income between $55,000 and $125,000 a year, said Jim Malatras, director of state operations. After verifying whether applicants had received federal and state aid or other money, the scholarship program would help eligible families make “the last mile,” Malatras said.

And those making more could actually be eligible for bigger awards, because less of their need might be met by other forms of aid. Each instance would be different, based on family composition and other factors, but it is not inconceivable that a family making $55,000 could receive an award of $800, Malatras said, and a family making $65,000 could get $4,000.

“It’s a sliding scale,” he said.

College access and affordability have increasingly become a national issue, with some graduates struggling with thousands of dollars in college debt. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who made free tuition at public colleges a cornerstone of his presidential campaign, was at Cuomo’s side as the governor announced the plan at CUNY’s LaGuardia Community College in Queens on Tuesday.

A few states, like Tennessee, have rolled out plans to pay tuition for all high school graduates, primarily at two-year community colleges, while Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, recently provided funding for the American Talent Initiative to expand access to elite colleges for low-income students.

The New York state tuition plan could be the first to apply to four-year public colleges. But its operations and financing still need to be fleshed out and approved by the state Legislature. Skeptics say the plan is geared more toward the middle-class, because lower-income students already get their full tuition covered by federal and state financial aid. And it doesn’t help with other costs. In fact, at SUNY colleges and universities, students pay far more annually for room and board (about $12,000) and books, supplies and fees (about $3,700) than they do in tuition.

Others say the $163 million estimated cost of the program, for a potential pool of 200,000 students, is far too low.

CUNY Rising, an alliance of neighborhood, union and student organizations at the city university, has estimated that a free tuition program would cost $750 million in additional state investment just for CUNY, if the state’s current tuition assistance program were reduced. Until 1975, the CUNY schools charged no tuition to full-time degree students.

But Malatras said the state would not decrease funding to the tuition assistance program.

Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College, stressed that for financially struggling students, even a few hundred dollars could make a difference. After Hurricane Sandy, she recalled, she met students who lost weeks’ worth of groceries when the power went out and food in their refrigerators spoiled. Replacing the food meant they could not pay tuition for the next semester.

At CUNY’s Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, which serves a sizable number of Caribbean immigrants, Rudolph F. Crew, the school’s president, said roughly 40 percent of students needed $500 to $1,000 to finish their degrees and graduate. So the governor’s proposal could mean “one less thing to worry about” at his school.

“This is a game of margin for them,” said Crew, a former chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

At rural SUNY Potsdam, Esterberg said, 200 to 300 of the 4,000 undergraduates are delayed in registering each year because they owe the school money. The students are often short $600 or $700.

“For many of our students, it really is the difference between coming back to school in the spring or stopping out for a semester, and once they stop out the chances of them coming back are just not as good,” Esterberg said.

Bradley Correia, 21, is a junior studying nursing at Farmingdale State College on Long Island, part of SUNY. He estimated that his mother, a physical therapist, and his father, a retired photographer, earn $80,000 to $90,000 a year — enough to disqualify him for Pell grants and many other sources of aid. About 10 percent of his tuition is covered by government assistance; the rest is on his family. So he has typically worked about 25 hours a week, first as a cashier at Nathan’s but more recently as a nursing assistant at Huntington Hospital, to pay for school.

If he qualifies for an Excelsior Scholarship, however, Correia could stop worrying about how to fit together his work and class time. “Each semester you have to rework your work schedule,” he said. He added, dryly, “That’s always fun.”

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