College path

Cuomo’s college tuition plan would be a boon for many students, but does it go far enough?

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

When Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an ambitious plan to provide free tuition at state colleges, it was hailed as a milestone. If passed by the legislature, it would relieve thousands of families of a huge burden by offering free two- and four-year tuition to those earning less than $125,000 per year.

But in the days since it was announced, observers have taken a closer look at the plan’s fine print, and some say that despite its sweeping scope, it doesn’t do enough for many needy students.

The governor’s office has released few details about the plan, but so far it is clear that part-time students would not qualify, even though they comprise roughly a third of the student body at CUNY and SUNY colleges. Neither would undocumented students, since they are currently ineligible for state financial aid. And the plan, as proposed, would “cover the remaining tuition costs” for students already receiving federal and state grants, but does not mention providing funds for additional expenses such as room and board.

“I think we just have to be clear about who’s going to benefit and how much they’re going to benefit,” said Raymond Domanico, director of education research at the city’s Independent Budget Office. “It’s not low-income. It’s the less poor and the working class.”

Some of the plan’s supporters have wondered why the price tag for the governor’s plan seemed relatively low — an estimated $163 million per year. In part, that’s because part-time students are excluded, significantly limiting the population Cuomo’s plan serves. CUNY had more than 80,000 undergraduate students attending its colleges part-time in the fall of 2015.

Cuomo’s office said the decision to exclude part-time students was meant to encourage students to go to school full-time, since full-time students are more likely to graduate. Less than 40 percent of students attending 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 a state press release.

Research shows the educational plans of part-time students are more easily derailed, and being fully invested in campus activities, such as clubs and support groups, help students stay in school, said Ann Marcus, a professor of higher education at the Steinhardt Institute at NYU.

Yet, part-time students often need to hold jobs either to support themselves or their families, Marcus said. “Most people who are part-time students, they are all people who feel like they either can’t or don’t want to give up their job.”

Cuomo’s current cost estimates also do not include funding for undocumented students, a spokesperson from the governor’s office confirmed. SUNY does not keep track of how many undocumented students are enrolled statewide, a spokesperson said. But there are approximately 3,800 full-time undocumented students attending CUNY schools.

State Democrats and Republicans have clashed for years over state’s DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented New York state students to receive state aid. Though undocumented students are not included in the current proposal, Cuomo pledged to keep pushing for the DREAM Act this year.

“We support the DREAM Act and will work to ensure both proposals are passed,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer.

Meanwhile, critics say, there’s another population the program does little to serve: the state’s neediest students. While their tuition may already be entirely covered by federal Pell grants and state aid, Cuomo’s proposal does nothing to help them with additional expenses, such as rent and food, argued Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

Ruth Genn, executive director of the New York office of Bottom Line, which helps low-income students navigate the college process, knows that firsthand. Though her organization is excited about Cuomo’s proposal, she says it’s not a panacea.

“[Tuition] doesn’t cover all the other things that our students are facing,” she said. Students are “taking out loans to cover those expenses.”

down to the wire

As New York’s free college tuition debate heats up, experts weigh in on whether a flawed tuition bill is worth passing

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

With the state budget deadline approaching, it’s not yet clear whether New York state will make a historic investment in tuition-free college — but it is almost certain that not everybody will get what they want.

With the three key plans — from the governor, Assembly and Senate — on the table, lawmakers now have to decide which aspects of the proposal makes it into the final deal. The governor’s original Excelsior Scholarship proposal offered free tuition at state colleges for families earning less than $125,000 per year. The Assembly wants more help for low-income students and more flexible requirements, and the Senate wants private colleges to also receive a boost.

In the midst of this heated discussion, panelists at an event hosted by the Center for New York City Affairs tackled the question: Is a “bad” bill better than no bill?

Here are their answers:

Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid and the Betrayal of the American Dream

Answer: Yes.

What’s a bad bill here? Everything that you’re discussing can be made more perfect. But please know that you’re talking about the future not only of New Yorkers here, but of people across the country. This is a nascent idea. It’s a difficult idea and it is gathering steam and for New York to step into the fray, even with an imperfect proposal, is very important, and it would be a major step backward to take if off the table. There are lots of states and lots of students around the country watching New York, and I think that the chance for New York and Albany to make history here is really very present.

This conversation and this dynamic is going to continue to play out across the country and it’s absolutely imperative that this moves forward. We should make it as good as it can be and then we should make it better over time.

Kimberly Cline, president, Long Island University

Answer: It really should include private colleges.

We would like to see a bill … that tied more into TAP [the state’s Tuition Assistance Program] because we feel that TAP has not been moved up in a long time, so students have not had the benefit of that. And that could benefit both public and independent colleges and the economy of New York state.

Mike Fabricant, first vice president, Professional Staff Congress, CUNY

Answer: It’s got to stay free. It’s got to stay public. It’s got to help CUNY.

To make is more perfect, I would stay with two things the governor’s done: One, conceptually to speak about free tuition is an incredibly important moment and a critically important point. For him to speak about undocumented students and others to be included is extraordinarily important and we have to hold him accountable on that … And finally, not including privates … is incredibly important as we move in the other direction to invest in public universities.

That said, we also need to be dealing with the other side of the equation, which is in fact the capacity …. My feeling is we spend so much time on the affordability side and we lack parts of capacity to pay for affordability.

Assemblymember James Skoufis, who represents Orange and Rockland Counties. (Skoufis drafted a letter, signed by 30 Assembly members, that called for a tuition plan with softer credit requirements, a raised income threshold and a boost for low-income students.)

Answer: We should fight for more, but in the end, we should do something.

There are some purists in the legislature and I’m not one who believes we should let the perfect get in the way of the good. I’ve been critical of the governor’s proposal in that it only helps 32,000 additional students. That’s the projected number of students who will benefit from his Excelsior Scholarship. I think it should be many, many, many more than that, but look, who am I to say if I’m one of those 32,000 students that gets help that it’s not a big deal to them?

What we have to be wary [of] is that, if the governor’s proposal moves forward or some similar version to it, that we all just don’t celebrate and say “OK, we’ve accomplished free tuition in New York” and now it’s off the table and we don’t try to make it better. That’s the one fear that I do have, that if we do get some watered-down version of free tution that people are going to sort of rest on their laurels on this issue and it’s going to be considered done. So that is one thing I’m wary of, but yeah, we’ve got to do something here. Strike while the iron’s hot.

Kevin Stump, Northeast director of Young Invincibles

Answer: We have to be really, really careful

This is a national moment, this coming from New York right now. This coming from a [possible] presidential nominee for 2020. This is a big deal that will have consequences here on out, which is why it matters to get it right. Because we’re not going to have another moment like this in New York. This is going to set the tone for states across the country, which is why advocates who have been doing this in New York for years are concerned that we’re just going to do this, wash our hands, and walk away. Leave the universities with even greater budget holes and continue to do nothing for the most [needy] students who already have their tuition paid for and already can’t afford to pay for the non-tuition related costs, which make up the majority of getting a college degree. So we need to continue to push and have a conversation about what investment means — and it’s certainly more than $163 million.

Exit strategy

State pols push for eliminating controversial rule in Cuomo’s tuition plan and expanding help for low-income families

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

More than 30 state Assembly members are pushing the governor to drop a controversial rule in his free college tuition plan — which critics say would exclude a large swath of New York state students — and to provide an additional boost for low-income families.

Governor Andrew Cuomo kicked off this legislative session with an unprecedented proposal to provide free tuition at every New York state public college for families earning less than $125,000 per year. Though many hailed the plan as a game-changer for middle-class families, it quickly garnered criticism for providing little to no extra relief to the state’s neediest families and including a required credit load critics say is too burdensome.

When the dust settles, less than 5 percent of the entire undergraduate population at SUNY and CUNY schools will benefit, according to the Assembly members’ projections.

“Let’s not put forward this smoke and mirrors proposal,” said Assemblymember James Skoufis of Orange and Rockland Counties, who drafted a letter to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie on behalf of himself and his colleagues, as first reported by Gotham Gazette.

In it, the Assembly members propose eliminating the 15-credit requirement, which Skoufis called “punitive” since it could harm students adjusting to college, struggling with a heavy course load, or juggling schoolwork with a job. Instead, the proposal allows students at four-year programs to graduate in five years and students at two-year programs to graduate in three, which averages to 12 credits per semester. (That’s the same credit load students must maintain now to qualify for state financial aid.)

The governor’s office says the requirement is meant to encourage on-time graduation, which has become a real problem in New York state and across the country. It also said students will have the flexibility to take 12 credits one semester and make up the extra class the next.

“Our goal is to provide as many New Yorkers as possible … the opportunity to go to college tuition-free, and that goal is met with the Excelsior Scholarship program,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever.

But at CUNY, the number of graduates pursuing bachelor’s degrees doubles when students are given an extra year. For those pursuing an associate’s degree, that number more than triples.

Another proposal would allow students to use Pell grants to cover non-tuition expenses. While federal and state financial aid already often covers tuition for the neediest students, they may still struggle to pay for living expenses, books and transportation. In a recent survey, more than 40 percent of surveyed KIPP charter school alumni, most of whom are low-income, reported missing meals to pay for books or other expenses.

While Cuomo’s plan extends to families that make $125,000 or less, this letter proposes increasing that figure to $175,000. A family with two teachers, nurses or union laborers — which many consider middle class — make too much to benefit from the plan, according to the letter.

Changing these provisions would likely to swell the cost of the plan. Cuomo’s expects his plan to cost $163 million per year when fully phased in. Skoufis said his back-of-the-envelope calculations put this plan at about $1 billion per year.

“It’s more expensive, but if we’re going to do it right, we’re going to cost more money,” he said.

The next test for these proposals is whether they will be included in the Assembly’s one-house budget bill, which reflects the body’s priorities heading into final budget negotiations. A group of Republicans Assembly members have already put forth a plan that would expand the state’s existing tuition assistance program, which can be used at either public or private colleges.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the governor’s office.