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New York Gov. Cuomo unveils plan to provide 'free' college for middle-class students

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders wave as they arrive on stage at an event at LaGuardia Community College. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

NEW YORK — Dubbed a “first-in-the nation program,” Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled his plan to make college tuition-free for low- and middle-income families in the largest state.

Flanked by former 2016 Democratic presidential contender Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Cuomo unveiled the plan at LaGuardia Community College in Queens Tuesday morning.

The proposal

Should Cuomo’s plan come to fruition, students who are accepted to a public school in New York — SUNY and CUNY schools — could be eligible for free tuition as long as they or their families make $125,000 or less annually. Cuomo said that encompasses about 80 percent of New York families.

The plan, called the Excelsior Scholarship, would cost approximately $163 million annually, according to the New York Times. But the state already spends about $1 billion on tuition assistance programs every year.

SUNY tuition is about $6,470 for commuters and $16,320 for undergraduate students who live on campus. CUNY tuition is approximately $6,330 per year for full-time undergraduates.

“College is a mandatory step if you want to be a success,” Cuomo said. “And the way this society said we’re going to pay for high school because you need high school, this society should say we’re going to pay for college because you need college to be successful.”

“And New York is going to do something about it,” he continued.

The free tuition could begin as early as this fall for some families, with the plan to fully phase it in by 2019.

Sanders, who made free college tuition a priority in his 2016 presidential campaign, heralded the plan as he, too, spoke from LaGuardia Community College.

“With an exploding technology, and with most of the good-paying jobs requiring more and more education, we need to make certain that every New Yorker, every Vermonter and every American gets all the education they need regardless of family income,” he said in a statement. “In other words, we must make public colleges and universities tuition-free for the middle class and working families of our country.”

But Dr. Julie Ajinkya, vice president of applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, told TheBlaze that Cuomo’s proposal does not go far enough as it “stops short of helping the students who need it the most.”

“Making college tuition-free does not address the entire problem of college affordability for low- to middle-income families,” Ajinkya said. “College costs include so much more than simply tuition, including campus and system-based fees and external costs of attendance like food, transportation, childcare, books, etc.”

She added that housing costs are increasingly becoming one of the heaviest financial burdens on college students.

“In order for this proposal to really have an impact on student success (i.e. increase in graduation rates) and not just access (i.e. increase in enrollment), it needs to account for those financial burdens as well,” Ajinkya said. “Otherwise we’re setting students up for failure.”

But Tim Hoefer, executive director of the conservative nonprofit Empire Center, noted that while there are still many details about the Excelsior Scholarship that have not been released, the proposal does beg the question: Is it really needed?

“[The proposal] gets ahead of the question of whether or not there’s actually a need for this. SUNY and CUNY tuition is already among the cheapest in the northeast,” Hoefer told TheBlaze in an interview. “So is there a need for free tuition or is the need to be better and more prepared to enter college in the first place?”

Four CUNY schools made the list of the 10 most affordable colleges in 2015.

Lawmakers’ response

The first step in implementing Cuomo’s plan is getting lawmakers in Albany on board, and some Republicans are predictably apprehensive about the cost of the proposal.

Assembly Republican Leader Brian Kolb stressed that while reducing the college-debt burden is an “important priority,” so is “protecting taxpayers,” considering the fact that “thousands of residents leave the state for less-costly pastures.”

“Gov. Cuomo isn’t providing ‘free’ tuition,” Kolb told TheBlaze. “He’s simply telling New York taxpayers to write a bigger check. At the end of the day, someone has to pay the bill, and once again his political ambitions will be subsidized by the highest-taxed people in America.”

State Sen. Fred Akshar (R) told Lohud.com that he was concerned about the financial ramifications of the proposal:

While I support helping middle-class families afford the rising cost of a college education, I’m very concerned that this proposal will put an unfair burden on hardworking taxpayers that have paid for Albany’s tax-and-spend culture for far too long.

But state Sen. Ken LaValle (R), chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, was less critical of Cuomo’s proposal.

“It has always been my top priority to make higher education as affordable as possible, a sentiment that has also been strongly supported by the Senate Republican Conference,” LaValle, who represents part of Long Island, said in a statement to TheBlaze.

He continued:

I will thoroughly examine Governor Cuomo’s newest proposal, the Excelsior Scholarship, along with my colleagues, to ensure this measure truly helps to offset the extraordinary debt brought on by undergraduate college costs for middle class families in New York.

CUNY Chancellor James Milliken applauded Cuomo’s proposal, asserting that “it has been at the heart of the mission of the City University of New York to provide affordable access to high quality education.”

“Governor Cuomo’s bold proposal to provide tuition-free college education for qualifying students renews the commitment to ensure that all New Yorkers can benefit from outstanding public higher education,” Milliken said in a statement. “We are deeply grateful for this proposed investment in New Yorkers that will provide exceptional new individual opportunity and significantly boost the economy of our state.”

Possible impact

When asked about the impact the Excelsior Scholarship could have on taxpayers, Hoefer declined to give a concrete answer, saying there were still too many unknown details about the plan:

"Certainly when we think about the ramifications of offering something like this, it leads to a lot of questions: Who’s paying for it? Does it create incentives for people to game the system? Does it lead to longer graduation rates? We just don’t know the answer to any of these questions because they haven’t been laid out, and if they have been laid out, they haven’t been made public."

“Again, we just don’t have enough data points to even begin to answer these questions, to judge the validity of what amounts to a quarter of a proposal,” he continued.

Brandon Muir, executive director of Reclaim New York, a nonprofit focused on government accountability, also noted a lack of details in the plan. He said in a statement to TheBlaze:

The Governor proposed a costly new entitlement program that would force taxpayers to pay for public university tuition. He offered no explanation of how the state would pay for it, because we can’t afford it.

New Yorkers aren’t dumb, they know nothing is free when it comes to government. They deserve a more affordable state. That would not only ease the costs of going to college, but foster a competitive economy so students don’t have to leave New York to find good jobs.

Ajinkya said there has been a growing national interest in college affordability, especially as seen in the last election. But while there needs to be a political push for this issue, she said, it is also important for plans to be clear on the funding.

“We need the political will to pass such measures and make sure that we will allocate resources in a sound way that enables the benefits to be passed on to students and their families,” she said. “Proposals must be clear about how they will fund such measures and who will benefit. Again, sustainable proposals that are really meant to improve student outcomes and lives will pay attention to college costs beyond tuition.”

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