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Foss: Warming up to governor's free tuition proposal

Foss: Warming up to governor's free tuition proposal

Private colleges don't like his plan — that's a good thing
Foss: Warming up to governor's free tuition proposal
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at LaGuardia Community College in New York on Jan. 3, 2017.
Photographer: Sam Hodgson/The New York Times

I've warmed up to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan to make the state's public colleges and universities tuition-free for families with an income of $125,000 or less, and here's why: Private colleges don't like it.

Since the governor announced his plan in January, private colleges have expressed concern.

They argue that it would limit students' choices and place private schools at a competitive disadvantage.

"Taxpayers should have the opportunity to have choice and to make a decision about what would be best for themselves and their kids," College of Saint Rose President Carolyn Stefanco told The Daily Gazette last month.

Please.

These schools aren't concerned about student choice.

They're concerned about their bottom line.

Making tuition free at SUNY and CUNY schools will boost their enrollment, as parents and students carefully evaluate return on investment and opt for the more affordable option. Elite private schools might not see a huge impact, but lower-ranked schools almost certainly would.

Private colleges don't want to disrupt a system that serves them reasonably well, but if there's any industry that could benefit from some disruption, it's higher education.

For decades, colleges and universities have been jacking up tuition and fees at an unsustainable rate. The cost of tuition at the small private college I graduated from 19 years ago has more than doubled, and there's no justification for it.

Private schools have long excused their outrageous cost increases by pointing to the generosity of their financial aid offices, and noting that many students do not pay full price. But fewer people are satisfied by this explanation, largely as a result of soaring student loan debt.

In a piece in the New Republic published last August, journalist David Dayen writes that private colleges are the real enemy when it comes to reforming higher education, because they "do incredibly well under the status quo. ... At the public level, states have pulled back funding for higher education, causing some of the [cost] increase. But all colleges benefit from the current system of financing higher education with debt. Colleges can increase prices without students feeling immediate pressures on affordability. Only after they graduate do borrowers get the bill that haunts them the rest of their lives."
 
Private colleges have no one but themselves to blame for the situation they now find themselves in.

If they had kept their tuition increases reasonable and made more of an effort to ensure that students graduated with a manageable level of debt, the push for free-tuition -- or debt-free college, which isn't the same thing -- wouldn't be gaining steam.

Cuomo's proposal would deny state funding to private schools that do not keep their annual tuition increases under $500 or the higher education rate of inflation, whichever is more. New Yorkers who opt to attend private colleges that exceed the cap would not receive tuition aid from the state's Tuition Assistance Program.

Now, it's possible that the governor's cap is too low -- that it should be $800, or $1,000 or $1,500. Maybe $500 is unrealistic, and the cap should be adjusted to better reflect rising costs and other financial pressures. There's always room for improvement, but I don't have a problem with the idea of a cap on tuition increases. Cap it -- and make the smart people who work at these schools figure out how to better manage their finances.

A group of Assembly Republicans has proposed expanding the TAP program to make both private and public colleges more affordable.

Expanding the TAP program is a good idea, but it won't do anything to get the cost of college under control.

I'm still not wild about making college tuition completely free as Cuomo has proposed, because I think most families and students can contribute something toward their education. But the details of the governor's plan are less important to me than the response to it. Private colleges don't like it, and that's a good thing.

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at sfoss@dailygazette.net. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog can be found here.

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