For The Daily Gazette
A college education is one of the single greatest ways to achieve upward economic mobility in the United States.
Yet, at the same time, we are seeing a widening gap between the rich and poor when it comes to college enrollment and graduation rates, due largely to the rising costs of higher education.
That’s why New York state enacted Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship free-tuition program, as well as a host of other important programs to make college more affordable.
As one of the policy architects of the governor’s free tuition program, as well as the author of a new Rockefeller Institute of Government report, “For Many, Is College Out of Reach?,” let me clear up some misconceptions in Sara Foss’s recent critique of the New York free-tuition scholarship.
Her basic argument is the scholarship is more “hype” than substance because not enough students take advantage and the program has too many requirements, all while SUNY tuition rises for students who don’t qualify.
The fact is the Excelsior Scholarship program is the most expansive free-tuition program offered by any state in the country.
In New York, the Excelsior Scholarship provides free tuition to any two-year or four-year school for individuals or families making less than $125,000.
No other state has a program as robust as New York’s.
For example, Tennessee’s Promise — another good program that has closed access gaps — offers free-tuition, but only for community colleges.
And while Excelsior only applies to tuition, it reduces the average overall four-year college costs by one-third.
Reducing a student’s overall college cost by one-third is significant savings.
Like other free-tuition programs, New York’s does have certain requirements, which is hardly unusual for a grant program.
In Tennessee, their program has a minimum GPA.
In New York, a student must be enrolled as a full-time student.
There was a reason for this. Extended college enrollment significantly increases costs to the student.
By incentivizing on-time graduation in two or four years, the Excelsior program aims to improve the state’s lagging on-time graduation rates and lower overall loan debt.
But the program allows for flexibility to accommodate students who cannot meet the credits requirement.
The state’s free-tuition program is also coupled with other state college affordability programs.
Over the past seven years, state financial support for Opportunity Programs (in which books, room and board, and other expenses are covered for at-risk and working-class students) was increased by 63 percent.
In addition, the governor enacted the Get-On-Your-Feet Student Loan Repayment program — the only statewide program in the nation that pays the entire cost of a recent college graduate’s student loans for two years.
And the state has increased funding for SUNY and CUNY by $1.5 billion or 25 percent over the past seven years to help keep overall college costs down.
Controlling tuition costs is something that we strive for in New York state.
State lawmakers replaced an unfair system in which years of flat tuition would be followed by a sticker-shock 40 or 50 percent tuition increase with a program called “rational tuition,” which builds small increases into a known schedule each year, so students can plan for the future.
But the fact is, even with rational tuition increases, tuition for SUNY/CUNY is among the lowest in the nation.
Tuition and fees at our public colleges and universities are 20 percent below the national average and cheaper than 38 other states.
Combined with low tuition, New York leads the nation in financial assistance to students, providing nearly $1 billion in need-based grants — more than any other state.
The result is that 53 percent — 210,000 — of all full-time SUNY and CUNY students go to school tuition-free, including the Excelsior free-tuition scholarship.
Furthermore, unlike students in other states, nearly half of all SUNY students graduate debt-free and 80 percent of CUNY students graduate debt free.
New York, through forward-thinking programs like the Excelsior free-tuition scholarship, is expanding college access and making college affordable.
We’re making a real difference in bending the college cost-curve in New York and the governor’s Excelsior program is providing real benefits.
It’s not hype; it’s model for other states to follow.
Jim Malatras is president of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a public policy think tank founded in 1981 that conducts research and analysis on the problems facing New York state and the nation.