A few months ago, Governor Cuomo held a news conference with the U.S. Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, to announce a new initiative: to make public college tuition free for families whose incomes were no more than $125,000.
At that time, the governor remarked: "A college education is not a luxury – it is an absolute necessity for any chance at economic mobility.” He went on to say that “(College) is incredibly expensive.”
For many New Yorkers, the governor’s proposal was a welcome change. After all, it was Governor Cuomo’s Administration that had changed New York law to automatically allow annual increases in public college tuition. During his time as governor, the cost of attending the State University of New York has shot up by 30 percent over five years.
Making public college more affordable is a great idea, not only for educating the next generation of workers, but the next generation of citizens as well.
Now that the state budget process is shifting into high gear, flaws in the governor’s tuition-free plan, as well as his overall higher education budget, are becoming more and more clear.
While the governor deserves praise for advancing the innovative concept of making public college more affordable, the evolving plan seems less and less compelling.
Governor Cuomo’s desire to create a “free tuition” program at a reduced cost has cut out all students attending private colleges and all students who do not take at least 15 credits (which is more than currently considered to be “full time”) every semester. In addition, the plan proposes that the public college defer billing the student for the tuition, and the college does not receive the scholarship money until after the semester. Thus, if the student fails to maintain the Excelsior program’s standards, the public college receives no income from the scholarship and must charge the student for the cost.
Of course, offering even a limited “free tuition” program will likely mean an increase in the number of students attending public colleges in New York. But the State University of New York and City University of New York campuses that would receive these new students will receive no additional state resources. What will happen?
And the governor has proposed a tuition increase to those families making over $125,000. And in what appears to be a cruel twist, the Excelsior program is going to cover the current level of public college tuition, not future tuition levels. Thus, as tuition costs go up under the governor’s plan it appears that the colleges could be forced to make up the difference.
As a result, stagnant state support not only means inadequate resources now, but the future tuition hikes mean future college cuts – unless the state adds resources, which the governor has not proposed to do.
Not only is the tuition free plan much more limited than initially advertised, but the governor’s budget hammers the higher education budget in other ways.
As just mentioned, the governor proposed that operational funding for SUNY be kept at this year’s level. Since the inflation rate is a bit over 2 percent, the governor is effectively proposing a cut of 2 percent in state funding for SUNY.
The governor also proposed cuts to programs that provide support to college students that come from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Legislature now must deal with the governor’s plan. We can’t forget that the governor deserves credit for serving up a good idea, but it is now up to lawmakers to make it work. Here are a few steps that they can take:
1. Set up the Excelsior scholarships along the lines of the already-in-existence Tuition Assistance Program. Not only would that reduce bureaucratic costs, but would eliminate some of the weaknesses of the governor’s plan. And while they’re at it, try to help students in private colleges too.
2. Boost state support for public colleges and eliminate the governor’s tuition hike.
3. Boost funding for program that helps poorer students – students who often already have their tuition covered, but who face budget cuts in the governor’s proposal.
The budget clock keeps ticking; this could be a very big year for the state’s higher education system. Let’s hope the Legislature uses the governor’s plan as a budgetary floor, not a ceiling.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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