By JOHN PURCELL
Recorder News Staff
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to offer college tuition-free to middle class students attending any State University of New York and City University of New York two- or four-year colleges has drawn a mixed response from area leaders.
The tuition-free college degree program, named the Excelsior Scholarship, was one of Cuomo’s flagship proposals presented during his recent State of the State road show. The Excelsior Scholarship would be phased in over three years, which would eventually make tuition at state colleges and universities free for students from families earning $125,000 or less annually.
Cuomo said the program is estimated to cost approximately $163 million annually after being fully phased in during the fall of 2019 semester. The governor said 80 percent of households statewide make $125,000 or less annually and 940,000 households are estimated to have college-aged children eligible for the program.
Fulton-Montgomery Community College President Dustin Swanger said Cuomo’s proposal is a “bold idea,” but he was unsure how the proposal could affect community colleges. Swanger said there are “a number of students” already getting free tuition through the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).
“As a college president, you would support anything that provided the opportunity for students to get an education,” Swanger said. “This might close the gap for some folks.”
Cuomo said TAP provides nearly $1 billion in grants to college students and under his proposal, students would continue to receive these funds, along with any federal grants. The Excelsior Scholarship would cover any remaining tuition costs for eligible students.
“A college education is not a luxury — it is an absolute necessity for any chance at economic mobility,” Cuomo said in a prepared statement. “With these first-in-the-nation Excelsior Scholarships, we’re providing the opportunity for New Yorkers to succeed, no matter what zip code they come from and without the anchor of student debt weighing them down.”
Swanger said details about the proposed assistance program are still being revealed, but he has heard students will have to attend college full-time and maintain a “B” average.
“I think there’s a number of factors that will be discussed as this proposal moves forward,” Swanger said.
Swanger said often the discussion around the cost of higher education focuses on tuition, but there are other costs such as books, lab fees, technology fees, athletic fees, room and board.
“How we deal with those things I think are some of the challenges moving forward,” Swanger said.
Sen. George Amedore, R-Rotterdam, said the tuition-free proposal is a “good soundbite” for Cuomo, which he believed was “pandering to the far left.” He said the “true reality” is nothing is free.
“There’s no question middle-class families are struggling and many of the families are working two or three jobs to make ends meet,” Amedore said. “Everyone would love to see their child go to college, earn a degree and hopefully have a good living wage job after that. The fact of the matter is not everyone can afford college and most people who want to send their kids to college find it very difficult because it’s too expensive.”
Amedore said the solution to address the problem is not to offer free tuition, but to make higher education less expensive and more affordable for all students and families.
Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, agreed higher education should be affordable, but he also did not believe Cuomo’s proposal was the best route to achieve this goal.
“Everyone wants to see those who qualify for college have the opportunity to be able to receive that education,” Tedisco said in an email. “A college education should be more affordable but not ‘free,’ as there’s no such thing as ‘free tuition,’ because somebody has to pay the bill.”
Tedisco has some unanswered questions, such as who potentially qualifies for the free tuition. He said New York should not become a magnet for students from neighboring states, which would overburden taxpayers to bear the increased costs for their education.
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, did not believe the state’s work has been completed to fully fund public schools, so he wanted to ensure schools are fairly and equitably funded before moving to enhance financial support for students attending college and universities.
“We have to make sure the foundation is there first,” Santabarbara said. “We have to make sure we are providing the best public education possible, so that means fully funding schools first and then moving on to finding ways to make college more accessible.”
Santabarbara said addressing student debts graduates currently face must also be a part of the conversation alongside making higher education more affordable for incoming and future students.
Tedisco said if the tuition-free proposal was passed, participating students should be required to remain in the state for four to five years after graduation. He said this would “stop the brain drain” of educated individuals fleeing the state.
Tedisco was also concerned how Cuomo’s proposal could impact many of the private colleges across the state, along with how SUNY and CUNY schools could accommodate “an overwhelming influx” of students in classrooms.
“By all means, let’s make college much more affordable for families, but let’s be fair about it for all taxpayers,” Tedisco said.