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.

diplomas for all

Education commissioner floats idea of allowing a work readiness credential to confer benefits of a diploma

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

A high school diploma opens doors to matriculating in college, qualifying for certain jobs and entering the military.

But many students struggle with New York state’s arduous requirements, which generally include passing at least four Regents exams. During a discussion Tuesday about creating more diploma options, New York state’s education commissioner floated a radical solution: Allow students to use a work-readiness credential to obtain a “local diploma” instead.

“I think what we need to look at is the opportunity of saying can the CDOS [Career Development and Occupational Studies credential] be, can the completion of the CDOS sequence, be an appropriate end to receiving a local diploma?” Elia said during a Board of Regents conversation about graduation requirements.

The CDOS credential was originally crafted in 2013 as an alternative to a diploma for students with disabilities. They can show they are ready for employment by completing hundreds of hours of vocational coursework and job-shadowing or by passing a work-readiness exam. The rules were changed last year to also allow general education students to obtain the credential, which can substitute for a fifth Regents exam for students who pass four.

Allowing the credential itself to confer the benefits of a diploma would mark a seismic shift in what it means to graduate in New York state. Students would potentially avoid having to pass a series of Regents exams — which would mark a huge victory for advocates who argue those exams unfairly hold students back.

But it would also raise questions about whether standards are being watered down. Chalkbeat has reported that the work-readiness exams used to obtain a CDOS credential often test fairly basic life skills, such as how to overcome obstacles when throwing a company party. The state itself is currently reviewing these exams to see if they have “sufficient rigor.”

The state cautioned that there is no formal proposal on the table. Also, the commissioner’s statement Tuesday morning was vague. If state officials decide to move forward with the proposal, for instance, they would need to decide if it is for all students or only students with disabilities. Officials would also need to clarify whether the work-readiness exam itself was sufficient for a diploma, or whether extra coursework would be tacked on.

“The Board of Regents and the State Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways. This is not about changing our graduation standards. It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “Today, the Board of Regents and the Department started a discussion to examine all of New York’s diploma options and graduation requirements. This discussion will continue over the coming months. It is premature to speculate on any changes that could be made as a result of this process.”

Regardless of any changes, all students would likely be required to complete the same number of high school courses, which includes 22 credits of required work, state officials said.

Still, just having the head of the state’s education department float this concept suggests a dramatic policy reversal. Starting in 2005, the Regents began a process to make it more difficult to earn a diploma in an attempt to prepare more students for college and career. Local diplomas exist today but are only offered in limited cases, for students with disabilities who complete a set of requirements, including the math and English Regents, and for general education students who just miss passing two of their Regents exams.

Recently, state education officials have been looking for ways to help students just shy of the passing mark. In 2014, they created a “4+1” option, which allows students to substitute a final Regents exam for a pathway in areas like the arts or Career and Technical Education, and then last year added CDOS as a potential pathway.

In 2016, another rule change allowed students to appeal Regents exam grades with scores below passing and let students with disabilities graduate after passing two Regents exams and getting a superintendent’s review. Last year, the number of New York City students successfully appealing Regents exam scores in order to graduate tripled, likely contributing to a boost in the city’s graduation rate.

By placing a discussion about diploma options on Tuesday’s agenda, state officials suggested the Regents want to do even more. Allowing students to earn a local diploma without passing any Regents exams would be the biggest change to date.

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, did not comment specifically on this provision and said he generally supports recent changes to graduation requirements. But he said looking forward, it will be important to maintain high standards.

“Ensuring that there’s rigor and that graduates are ready for what comes next is very important,” Sigmund said.

Many education advocates are likely to be supportive by the change. A group of activists rallied at the State Education Department on Monday, carrying signs that said “diplomas for all.”

These and other advocates argue that students across the state — particularly those with disabilities or those who struggle with tests — have had their life options severely limited by the exams.

State Senator Todd Kaminsky, who has been active in fighting for more diploma options, said for him, finding solutions for these students outweighs critics’ concerns about rigor.

“I think this is a major victory for parents who had seen their potential for their children stifled,” Kaminsky said. “I am firmly of the belief that we need to err on the side of giving children options to graduate.”

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.