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.

No Strings Attached?

Gov. Cuomo is proposing free college tuition, but are his plan’s rules too strict?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

As a freshman at City College last fall, Saad Ahmed stopped by his advisor’s office for what he thought was a routine meeting — until he found out he had lost all his state financial aid for the semester.

He thought it was a mistake, but it wasn’t.

Although he should have received about $2,000 per semester under the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, he unknowingly took a history class he didn’t need to graduate. Since TAP only covers courses applicable to a student’s “program of study,” he was suddenly one credit shy of the required course load.

“It was obviously frustrating because I lost the money, but it wasn’t my fault,” he said.

Ahmed is not alone. TAP has strict requirements about which courses, and how many courses, students must take in order to keep their aid. The “Excelsior Scholarship” — Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new plan to provide free college tuition at state schools to families making less than $125,000 a year — does too. The new scholarship, as it is currently configured, carries over some of TAP’s regulations, and some of its rules would be even more stringent.

The governor’s office, and many supporters, argue that cases like Ahmed’s are rare. Officials said they will try to address any problems with state financial aid, and that Excelsior’s additional regulations are intended to encourage on-time graduation.

But advocates say that argument misses a larger, structural issue with the state’s financial aid system: The more rules there are, the more chances there are for students to get tripped up. That ranges from seemingly innocuous mistakes like forgetting to count college credits obtained in high school, to situations in which students have to drop classes in order to support family members.

“How many 18-years-olds do you know that know exactly what they want to be when they grow up and don’t stumble and fall a little bit?” asked Susan Mead, director of financial aid at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie. “Unless we have a parachute to catch them while they’re having difficulties, they’ll end up going out the exit door.”

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New York offers one of the most generous financial aid programs in the nation, but stringent rules have historically limited the pool of students who can benefit. Under the current TAP rules, students have to maintain 12 credits per semester and those credits must count toward a student’s program of study. Excelsior ups that requirement to an average of 15 credits per semester.

The idea of asking students to take only courses applicable to their study area is designed to discourage students from taking ones won’t help them get a degree. But the requirement is applied unevenly across colleges, said Victoria Hulit, a college success director at Let’s Get Ready, a program that helps low-income students finish college.

“In theory, it sounds great. We want our kids to get degrees. But the way that TAP regulates it, it gets a little bit tricky,” Hulit said. “We didn’t even realize [TAP] was a thing until kids started losing it.”

For instance, Hulit knows one student who decided he wanted to switch majors from forensic science to fire science. He took a semester of fire science courses, but hadn’t technically switched his major in time for those courses to count for TAP. He lost all of his aid for the semester, she said.

Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College, where Cuomo announced his support for a free college tuition proposal, said that some of these problems can be solved by better tracking of credits on the part of students and schools. Sometimes, students say there are no courses available, but either they don’t want to wake up for an 8 a.m. class or the class conflicts with work. (Her students, for instance, sometimes work the night shift at LaGuardia Airport, she said.)

Schools are under pressure to make sure students meet each of the requirements. An auditor from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office confirmed that they frequently audit TAP rules at colleges and prevent schools from providing aid to students not considered full-time.

Hulit estimates she knows about 20 students who have lost TAP funding. Though that is only a small fraction of the students she’s worked with, she says more often counselors caught students right before they made a mistake. In many cases, she said, students simply lost funding because they did not meet TAP’s academic or credit accumulation requirements.

That’s where the Excelsior Scholarship is even more stringent than TAP. The scholarship requires students to average 15 credits per semester and finish in two academic years for an associate’s degree or four years for a bachelor’s.

“The way to make college a greater success — more success and completion — is more full-time faculty, more opportunity for a large number of class sections,” said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, chair of the higher education committee. “That is the way to improve the end result. Not putting a gun to their head.”

There are exceptions, according to officials from the governor’s office. Students could take 12 credits one semester and make up classes the next, but they will still have to average 15 credits per semester in most cases. The state would also make exceptions for extreme circumstances, such as caring for a sick husband or serving in the military, officials from the governor’s office said.

“From a ‘stepping out’ provision permitting students to pause their education to allowing students to take variable credits if necessary, the program includes built-in flexibility and any suggestion otherwise is patently false,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer.

Still, an average student would not get more time, officials said. Their scholarship would not extend beyond two or four years, depending on the type of degree, even though the vast majority of students need extra time.

Only 22 percent of first-time, full-time students pursuing bachelor’s degrees at CUNY graduate in four years, but that number jumps to 54 percent after six years. The numbers are even more striking for students in two-year degree programs. Only three percent of students earn an associate’s degree in two years, but by the four-year mark, about 20 percent have.

This could be particularly difficult for students who have to take remedial classes, which do not count toward a student’s degree. Only about 50 percent of New York City high school graduates have met CUNY’s standards for college-readiness in math and English.

If the governor wants to help more students graduate, he should focus on eliminating some of these restrictions, instead of adding more, said Kevin Stump, the Northeast Regional Director for Young Invincibles, a group that encourages young adult activism on a range of issues, including healthcare and higher education.

“If the governor is serious, and if the state is serious — about college affordability and making college free,” Stump said, “it shouldn’t have all these ridiculous rules.”