New York moves to abolish tuition fees for poorer families

Nearly a million households expected to benefit from deal covering SUNY and CUNY systems 

April 10, 2017
Charging bull in Wall Street, New York
Source: iStock
Bold move: the charging bull sculpture in Wall Street, New York

A deal has been agreed to abolish tuition fees in the City University of New York and State University of New York systems for families with annual incomes of up to $125,000 (£101,000).

Under an agreement between New York governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders, the plan will cover community colleges and universities offering four-year degrees and will be phased in over three years, starting this autumn with new students from families with incomes up to $100,000.

The governor’s office estimates that nearly 940,000 families in New York state will be eligible for free public college tuition when the plan is fully phased in.

The announcement from the governor also noted a “generous maintenance of effort” provision to protect CUNY and SUNY budgets. The provision is designed to address the fear of some educators that free tuition could reduce the pressure to provide adequate budgets to public higher education.

At the same time, a last-minute addition to the bill is alarming some student aid experts, including advocates for free public college tuition. The agreement requires those who receive free tuition to live and work in the state for the same number of years that they receive the awards. If they do not, the scholarships would convert to student loans. The requirement may be deferred if recipients leave the state to complete their undergraduate education, to enrol on a postgraduate programme or because of “extreme hardship”.

The budget deal also contains two other measures related to college affordability:

  • A total of $8 million will be provided for promoting and distributing open educational resources for SUNY and CUNY students. The systems have been urged to focus on high-enrolment courses, with the goal of minimising or eliminating textbook costs for those courses.
  • A new grant programme will be created for students who attend private colleges in the state, with a maximum award of $3,000. However, private colleges would be required to match the grants and to freeze tuition for the duration of a student’s grant.

The action in New York represents a revival of the free tuition concept, which featured prominently in the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton last year and then was widely seen as dead after Donald Trump defeated Ms Clinton in November. But Mr Cuomo – with Mr Sanders at his side – proposed a version of the plan in January and fought hard for it in negotiations with legislative leaders. Mr Sanders, meanwhile, has introduced a new version of his free tuition plan in the US Senate.

Mr Cuomo also battled against private colleges in New York state, most of which opposed the plan. Many New York private colleges largely enrol state residents, and some of these colleges’ leaders have feared a loss of enrolment to the SUNY and CUNY systems. But major legislative initiatives in New York tend to be adopted or rejected as part of the overall state budget and, in this case, the Cuomo proposal made it into the final deal.

Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York, said she thought the new policy was “extraordinary” and would lead to dramatic shifts in college attendance in the state. She said too many in New York and elsewhere “have blown through their aid attending for-profit schools and leaving without skills”. The free-tuition model will “change the discussion” in the state and attract many more students to community college, she believes. “This is going to change the college-going culture,” she said, “by taking tuition off the table.”

But for Mary Beth Labate, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York, the news was “dispiriting”.

“There is a clear divide in the way students will be treated, depending on whether they go to a public or private institution,” she said, adding that the Cuomo plan was poor public policy, given the excellent outcomes for those who attend private colleges.

As to the new funds for private college students, Ms Labate said she wasn’t sure that many institutions would find the programme viable. She said the requirement that colleges freeze tuition for students when they first receive the aid would appear to mean that colleges would end up with different tuition rates for students in different classes, and would have to track the students.

“This would be bureaucratically difficult,” she said. “Colleges would have to ask if it was worth it.”

As news of the budget deal spread, one provision drew criticism from advocates for free public higher education. That is the provision that would require recipients to work or live in the state after graduation for the same number of years that they receive support (which presumably would be up to four years, given the requirements that students enrol full time).

Sara Goldrick-Rab, one such advocate and a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, posted a series of highly critical tweets on the provision, calling it “extortion”, “bad public policy” and a “trick”. 

Marc Cohen, president of the SUNY Student Assembly, said that his group believes public higher education should be free “without strings”, and that he would not want a recent SUNY or CUNY graduate to pay a financial cost “for taking a great job out of the state”.

At the same time, he said that he didn’t see the provision having an impact on most students. “New York State is the greatest state in the union, and there are great opportunities here,” said Mr Cohen, a master’s student at (and undergraduate alumnus of) SUNY’s Albany campus.

Mr Cohen said the big story was really about the opportunities free tuition would provide. “An affordable and accessible higher education will now be available to many more people,” he said. Mr Cohen said he saw the programme “propelling New York state to being the leader in public higher education”.

This is an edited version of a story which first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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