Blair Horner: The Governor Touts “Tuition Free”* Public Colleges

Apr 18, 2017

Every year since his first as governor, Governor Cuomo uses the time after passage of the budget to take a statewide “victory lap” to stress what he sees as the most significant achievements.  This year has been no different:  The governor has used the week or so after passage of the budget to focus public attention on his plan to offer tuition-free public college. 

The governor’s rationale for the program boiled down to this:  Progressives at the dawn of the 20th Century correctly advocated for universal k-12 education, and progressives in the 21st Century should consider a college degree the extension of that promise.

The governor held public events to draw attention to his success.  At one with Hillary Clinton, a placard on the lectern stated “FIRST-IN-NATION TUITION-FREE COLLEGE FOR THE MIDDLE CLASS.”

The governor has received attention both within the state and nationally for his plan.  Not surprisingly, the “Excelsior Scholarship” program, as his tuition-free plan is called, has drawn both praise and criticism.  The criticism comes from two sources: those who have an ideological opposition to entitlement programs and those who see the plan to be more rhetorical than real.

The Excelsior Scholarship program’s “tuition-free” promise should come with an asterisk.  It does not cover everyone and is designed to minimize costs for the state.  The plan only applies to families whose income is less than $125,000.

And not everyone making less than $125,000 a year would qualify.  The governor’s plan is a “last dollar” program, meaning it will only apply once all other forms of government aid have been applied.  New York’s financial aid programs already offer tuition coverage for the poorest public college students.  Thus, the prime beneficiaries of the Excelsior Scholarship are families with incomes of roughly $50,000 or more.  The program has credit and performance limitations as well; if a student doesn’t obtain 30 credits in one year, for example, they lose the scholarship and would likely be forced to take out a loan to pay for the credits they did receive.

These limitations were efforts to limit the cost of the program and in doing so, limit the number of students who will likely benefit.  While the Administration has publicly stated that upwards of 900,000 New York families would be eligible, others have estimated that the number of families that would actually receive benefits is more like 32,000.

The limitations on the program are real, that is without doubt.  And the governor’s “sales job” creates an impression that the program is more than it really is.

But is that a reason to oppose it?  No.

As many of us may recall, in the early Obama years, there was a debate over offering health insurance to those without coverage.  Ultimately, the Affordable Care Act passed, but did not contain a public option and did not offer universal coverage.

But for the millions who did receive coverage, it mattered.

In this case, for those who receive the Excelsior Scholarship the benefits will be real.  In some cases, it may offer a path to a college degree that did not exist – or would have led to significant college loan debts.  For those individuals, there will be tangible benefits.

Part of the blowback to the program is the fact that the governor is overhyping the impact.  What is true is that this program is innovative and offers real benefits and could lay the foundation for efforts to expand it over time.

For many, the Affordable Care Act was one step toward universal coverage, a step that benefited tens of millions.

The question for Governor Cuomo is whether this is the first, or last, step.  If this is the beginning and will be followed with something that was missing from his initial plan – public debate and hearings – then a stronger program will result; a program that will meet the reality of the governor’s rhetoric.

If it’s just one plan that is now done, then the political benefits to the governor will erode and will fit into a pattern all too familiar in Albany: policy changes that deal with real problems, but do so in such a limited way that it undermines the program and fuels public cynicism.

For the benefit of all New Yorkers, let’s hope that this is the beginning of a real effort to make college as affordable as K-12 education.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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