Private colleges fault Cuomo’s free tuition plan

Governor's proposal leaves out many students, schools argue
Students return to Union College earlier this month.
Students return to Union College earlier this month.

Private college leaders across the Capital Region say they are worried Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to make public college tuition free for certain students undermines private options and threatens a tradition of providing state assistance to students at all schools.

As the first of over 35 policy proposals during his road-show State of the State addresses, Cuomo stood beside liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders and called for lawmakers to adopt a plan to make public college tuition free for students from families that make $125,000 or less a year.

The plan was widely-applauded by people in the public higher education world, but since his announcement, an echo of criticisms have emanated from the world of public colleges and universities. 

Under the state’s current tuition assistance program – which doles out around a billion dollars in student aid each year – students are eligible for state assistance regardless of the school they choose to attend. But the governor’s proposal, which has been described as a supplement to state and federal aid, would only serve students who go to a State University of New York system college or university.

To many in the private college community, the change represents a threat to a system their students currently benefit from.

“This would be a potentially disturbing departure from that,” said Mary Beth Labate, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York, who has worked in the state budget office and as a senior adviser to SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.

“We have a very strong public-private ecosystem, and it has been the longstanding policy that a student and their family know the best fit for them and oftentimes that is a private college,” Labate said. “It is really up to the parent and student; we want them to be able to decide the best fit – the best mission fit, the best cultural fit, the best geographic fit…. We don’t want their hands to be tied behind them when they make that decision.”

Statewide just over 80,000 private college students receive aid through the tuition assistance program, with 5,200 students at Capital Region private colleges receiving an average aid package of over $2,500 through the state program.

The private schools are also concerned that the proposal places them at a competitive disadvantage, siphoning away New York students that would opt for a tuition-free program at a state school instead of choosing a private option they may have felt was a better fit before. College of Saint Rose President Carolyn Stefanco said the school may already be affected by potential students beginning to hear about the free tuition proposal.

“I do believe that it will have unintended, but nevertheless, negative consequences,” Stefanco said. Nearly half of Saint Rose students are eligible for state tuition assistance. “Taxpayers should have the opportunity to have choice and to make a decision about what would be best for themselves and their kids.”

A Georgetown University study of Hillary Clinton’s free tuition proposal, which serves as the framework of Cuomo’s proposal, estimated that Clinton’s free tuition plan would have boosted enrollment at public colleges and universities by between 9 percent and 22 percent. The researchers said free tuition would be “much more powerful” in driving enrollment choices than year-to-year marginal tuition increases have been at changing behavior.

And at least some of those new public school students would come from private college enrollment, according to the study. The study estimates enrollment at private schools would drop between 7 percent and 15 percent, with the largest impact on “open access” schools that turn away few, if any, applicants.

Skidmore and Union college officials said they weren’t necessarily concerned that they would lose out on students if SUNY schools had free tuition. (The Georgetown study also suggested that more selective and prestigious schools would be largely immune from enrollment loss if public schools made tuition free.) But they did say they hoped the policy discourse moving forward doesn’t lose track of the complexity of selecting a college and pointed out that students eligible under Cuomo’s plan would likely receive large aid packages at private schools.

“There is a complexity to college prices that I hope doesn’t get lost in the conversation,” said Matthew Malatesta, Union college vice president for admissions, financial aid and enrollment. “Affordability is obviously good, but affordability with no choice… you need to balance that.”

Malatesta said that one of his biggest concerns was that policymakers would cut back on current TAP dollars, utilized in part by private college students, as a way to pay for free tuition at public schools.

He also cautioned that parents and students don’t know how much financial aid they will receive from a private college until they go through the process of applying for admissions and need-based aid. In many cases, the students who would be eligible for free public tuition would also benefit from big financial aid packages at private schools.  

At the top of the income range spelled out in Cuomo’s proposal — $125,000 – a family of four at that income would be expected to pay around $20,000 a year to send a student to Union or Skidmore, a cost that would cover tuition, room and board and other fees, Malatesta said.

“That family is going to get an enormous scholarship from places like Union,” Malatesta said. “When it’s all said and done, the cost differential is not quite what the immediate perception is.”

For his part, Cuomo framed the free tuition proposal as a values statement the state could make.

But others in the private, non-profit education sector said the plan fails to focus on a bigger problem in higher education: degree completion.

Jim Baldwin, president of the Albany-based online non-profit Excelsior College, said that while the proposal could expand student access to college, it doesn’t do enough to move a higher percentage of students in college to graduation. Cuomo’s proposal requires that students maintain full-time status, which has been criticized by some as leaving out the students who have no choice but to take class part-time as they work or raise a family.  

“What are we trying to do here? Are we trying to ensure that more people are trying to complete their degree?” Baldwin asked. “I’m not certain that this proposal will see that that is done.”

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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