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.

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those perimeters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.