path to college

Cuomo proposes free college tuition at state schools for families making less than $125,000

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Cuomo proposes making college tuition-free for New York’s middle-class families.

Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a bold plan Tuesday to offer free college tuition at two- and four-year state schools for families making less than $125,000 per year.

The governor said his proposed “Excelsior Scholarship” would ease the financial burden on students attending SUNY and CUNY schools, mirroring a national push for debt-free college. Senator Bernie Sanders, who championed free public college during his presidential run, attended Cuomo’s announcement at LaGuardia Community College in Queens.

“College is a mandatory step if you really want to be a success,” Cuomo said. “This society should say, ‘We’re going to pay for college because you need college to be successful.’”

The plan, which must be approved by the state legislature, received a warm reception from many advocates, including the city’s teachers union president, Michael Mulgrew, who called the plan “visionary.” Even Senate Republicans, who could challenge the plan, did not dismiss the idea.

“While we will have to review the specifics when the governor releases his executive budget, this proposal appears to move us in a positive direction,” said Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reif.

Still, cost could become a hurdle. Cuomo estimates the final price tag for the program will be about $163 million per year when it is fully phased in, which could be a hard sell. The state estimates almost a million families statewide would qualify for the program, some of whom are also eligible for state and federal aid.

The program will also have to contend with another tough reality: Many students start college but never finish. Less than 40 percent of students who attended four-year public universities and roughly 8.5 percent of those attending two-year colleges in New York graduated on time in 2013, according to the state’s press release. Students who receive Cuomo’s proposed Excelsior Scholarship would have to enroll in college full-time, a feature designed to keep students on track to graduate.

That could be a “double-edged sword” for low-income students in New York City, said Nikki Thompson, executive director of OneGoal in New York City, a program that helps prepare students for college. While some students may benefit from more time spent on campus, she said, others could struggle to balance their jobs and family responsibilities with a full-time college commitment.

Thompson said the scholarship could make a big difference to many students, but was mindful that cost is not the whole battle for many students. A host of obstacles beyond tuition contribute to low graduation rates among low-income students, she said. Often students struggle to fit in on campus or to pay for books and trips home, she said.

“It’s almost as though the cost issue is the entrance exam,” Thompson said. “There’s a whole set of work that needs to be done around retaining [students].”

Large-scale college scholarship programs are sometimes accompanied by other college-focused support for students. For instance, the scholarship program “Say Yes to Education,” which offers tuition assistance to students in cities including Buffalo and Syracuse, provides additional support, such as mentoring and after-school services.

The goal of providing free college tuition is catching on around the country. It became a key issue in the 2016 presidential election, and in September 2015 President Obama announced “College Promise,” a program that helps students get free community college education. Several states, including Tennessee, now offer funding for students attending two-year colleges and a growing number of cities offer scholarship programs.

While providing tuition might not solve every obstacle that low-income college students face, any assistance will help, said Thompson.

“It removes the single greatest barrier for our students when it comes to making their college dreams a reality,” Thompson said.

future funding

Trump’s education budget could be bad news for New York City’s ‘community schools’ expansion

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the sole source of funding for New York City’s dramatic expansion of its community schools program, according to budget documents released Tuesday.

Less than two weeks ago, city officials announced its community schools program would expand to 69 new schools this fall, financed entirely by $25.5 million per year of funding earmarked for 21st Century Community Learning Centers — a $1.2 billion federal program which Trump is again proposing to eliminate.

The community schools program is a central feature of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy for high-need schools — a model he called a “game-changer” earlier this month. It is designed to help schools address the physical health and emotional issues that can impede student learning, in part by pairing them with nonprofit organizations that offer a range of services, such as mental health counseling, vision screenings, or dental checkups.

City officials downplayed the threat of the cuts, noting the Republican-controlled congress increased funding for the program in a recent spending agreement and that similar funding cuts have been threatened in the past.

“This program has bipartisan support and has fought back the threat of cuts for over a decade,” a city education official wrote in an email.

Still, some nonprofit providers are nervous this time will be different.

“I’m not confident that the funding will continue given the federal political climate,” said Jeremy Kaplan, director of community education at Phipps Neighborhoods, an organization that will offer services in three of the city’s new community schools this fall. Even though the first year of funding is guaranteed, he said, the future of the program is unclear.

“It’s not clear to [community-based] providers what the outlook would be after year one.”

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they have contingency plans to ensure the 69 new community schools would not lose the additional support, equivalent to roughly $350,000 per school each year.

“Community schools are an essential part of Equity and Excellence and we will do everything on our power to ensure continuation of funding,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email.

New York state receives over $88 million in 21st Century funding, which it distributes to local school districts. State education officials did not immediately respond to questions about how they would react if the funding is ultimately cut.

“President Trump’s proposed budget includes a sweeping and irresponsible slashing of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget,” state officials wrote in a press release. “If these proposed cuts become reality, gaps and inequity in education will grow.”

vying for vouchers

On Betsy DeVos’s budget wish list: $250M to ‘build the evidence base’ for vouchers

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Recent research about private-school voucher programs has been grim: In Washington D.C., Indianapolis, Louisiana, and Ohio, students did worse on tests after they received the vouchers.

Now, the Trump administration is looking for new test cases.

Their budget proposal, released Tuesday, asks for $250 million to fund a competition for school districts looking to expand school voucher programs. Those districts could apply for funding to pay private school tuition for students from poor families, then evaluate those programs “to build the evidence base around private school choice,” according to the budget documents.

It’s very unlikely that the budget will make it through Congress in its current form. But the funding boost aimed at justifying private-school choice programs is one way U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is delivering on years of advocacy for those programs. On Monday, she promised the Trump administration would soon lay out the “most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history.”

DeVos and other say vouchers are critical for helping low-income students succeed and also help students in public schools, whose schools improve thanks to competitive pressure. Private school choice programs have also come under criticism for requiring students with disabilities to waive their rights under IDEA and for allowing private schools to discriminate against LGBT students.

Bill Cordes, the education department’s K-12 budget director, told leaders of education groups Tuesday that the “sensitive” issues around the divide between church and state and civil rights protections for participating students would be addressed as the program is rolled out.