Inside Higher Education
Free Tuition Idea
New York's governor wants to make public higher education free for most
students, setting off new debate on the concept.
By Rick Seltzer
January 4, 2017
The drive for tuition-free public college experienced a rebirth
Tuesday, rising from the ashes of the 2016 presidential election to
re-emerge at the state level.
New York’s governor, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, delivered the latest
version of the idea at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, flanked
by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Cuomo, already rumored as a future
presidential candidate, unwrapped a proposal that in many ways looks
like the plan his party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton, brought to the 2016
election -- with a few differences.
Cuomo’s plan, called the Excelsior Scholarship, would ensure free
tuition at New York’s public two- and four-year institutions to
students whose families make up to $125,000 per year. That’s the same
income threshold Clinton used for her national plan after Sanders’s
strong run for the Democratic nomination pushed her to adopt a
tuition-free proposal. But Cuomo called for phasing in the program more
quickly than Clinton -- over three years ending in 2019, instead of
over four years ending in 2021.
The proposal for New York drew both praise and opposition within the
state. Students and public higher education leaders backed it as
supporting affordability for low- and middle-income families. But
legislative Republican leadership balked at handing the bill to
taxpayers. Meanwhile, the state’s private colleges and universities
sounded a cautious note while awaiting more details. Many private
college leaders strongly opposed the idea when it was pushed by Clinton
Sanders signaled a belief that New York will be the first of many
states to roll out free tuition proposals. However, several national
analysts remained split over whether free tuition would encourage more
students to enroll and finish their degrees or whether it will amount
to a regressive handout to middle-class and wealthy families who do not
Cuomo’s proposal, which will need to be approved by the state’s
legislators, would cover students enrolled in two-year and four-year
programs at institutions in the State University of New York and the
City University of New York systems. In some ways, it’s a throwback for
CUNY, which was long associated with tuition-free attendance until the
Students will need to be enrolled full time to participate, a
requirement the governor’s office said would encourage on-time
graduation. The governor’s office also indicated that the initiative is
structured as a “last-dollar” program, paying after students receive
other state and federal grants.
The new program would be rolled out over three years, starting in the
fall of 2017. That year, state residents making up to $100,000 would
qualify. The cutoff would rise to $110,000 in 2018, followed by
$125,000 in 2019.
Cuomo’s office estimated that 80 percent of New York’s households make
$125,000 or less. About 940,000 of them have eligible college-age
The program would cost about $163 million annually once it is fully
phased in, according to estimates from the governor’s office. For
comparison, New York has an existing Tuition Assistance Program for
students that provides about $1 billion in grants annually. The state
spent about $10.7 billion on higher education in 2016, including
capital projects and personal service, according to its budget results
for all governmental funds.
New York counted 573,555 full-time-equivalent students in public higher
education in its 2017 budget. The average annual tuition for a
bachelor’s program at SUNY institutions is $6,470, according to the
governor’s office. It is $6,330 at CUNY institutions. Associate degrees
at the respective institutions average $4,350 and $4,800. Cuomo made no
mention Tuesday of the program covering room and board, but those costs
vary widely in New York State, where some public institutions serve
commuter populations, others serve residential populations, and other
institutions fall in between.
When introducing his proposal, Cuomo likened the push for free college
tuition to the push generations ago to have the state pay for high
“If you want to offer everybody a fair shot, then you have to get
up-to-date, and you have to say what high school was 75 years ago,
college is today,” Cuomo said. “College is a mandatory step if you
really want to be a success. 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.’”
Sanders argued economic changes have made postsecondary education
necessary for success.
“The economy has changed,” he said. “Technology has changed. The global
economy has changed. And if we are going to do justice to the working
families of this country, to lower-income families, if we are going to
have an economy that creates the kinds of jobs that we need for our
people, we must have the best-educated workforce in the world.”
Many of New York’s higher education leaders offered support for the
proposal. City University of New York Board of Trustees Chair William
C. Thompson, a Cuomo appointee, spoke at the Tuesday announcement,
saying steps are necessary to keep college in reach for everyone.
SUNY’s chairman, H. Carl McCall, and chancellor, Nancy L. Zimpher,
voiced support in statements focused on affordability.
The SUNY Student Assembly’s president, Marc J. Cohen, called on New
York legislators to act quickly to approve Cuomo’s proposal. Barbara
Bowen, the president of the Professional Staff Congress -- a staff and
faculty union for CUNY -- called the proposal a “conceptual and
political breakthrough.” Frederick E. Kowal, president of the United
University Professions, a union representing SUNY faculty members,
called it “the kind of positive, progressive change that UUP’s members
would get behind.”
It might not be so simple, however. Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at
the Urban Institute, said the new proposal might not be as progressive
as it seems, because New York’s existing aid programs cover many costs
for low-income students when taken in concert with federal aid.
Therefore, the state would be effectively spending more money on
students from wealthier backgrounds.
“If SUNY tuition is $6,000 and change and the Pell Grant is $5,000 and
change, and New York already has other need-based aid that already
closes the gap, they’re basically just taking a world where tuition
already is free for low-income kids and doing nothing more for those
low-income kids -- and instead plowing millions of dollars into
children from more affluent families,” Chingos said. “The change in
expenditure is regressive.”
Chingos added, however, that the idea of free college for lower-income
families can be a good idea. His main issues with the proposal are
setting the income cutoff at $125,000 and not providing new resources
to low-income students.
Stronger criticism came from New York Republicans. State Assembly
Minority Leader Brian M. Kolb attacked the proposal in a statement.
“Governor Cuomo isn’t providing ‘free’ tuition, he’s simply telling New
York taxpayers to write a bigger check,” Kolb said. “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.”
The Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York
released a cautious statement saying it was waiting for more details.
The question at hand is what is best for each state resident and
taxpayers, said Mary Beth Labate, president of the organization.
“New York policy makers have long understood the critical role that the
state plays in giving all families -- regardless of their financial
means -- a choice in higher education,” Labate said in the statement.
“The state’s major higher education financial assistance programs have
always been available to all qualifying students. New York State’s
private, not-for-profit colleges and universities are willing and
seasoned partners and have long been committed to a public/private
partnership that has served students and taxpayers well.”
CICU represents the leaders of more than 100 private not-for-profit
colleges and universities in New York. Such institutions provided $5.1
billion in institutional financial aid in 2014-15, it said.
The proposal could very well spell trouble for some of New York’s many
small private colleges and universities. The state is already an
intensely hypercompetitive market because of the large number of
institutions operating there, according to Ian Mortimer, vice president
for enrollment management at Nazareth College in suburban Rochester.
Nazareth is a small fish, enrolling 2,159 undergraduates and 724
graduate students in the fall of 2016. It’s in a big pond -- Mortimer
counts 38 baccalaureate-degree-granting institutions within a 120-mile
drive of Nazareth’s campus.
But small private colleges and universities can argue that they’re in
an entirely different cost market than New York’s public institutions.
Nazareth students, for example, pay much more than students at public
colleges. Nazareth’s advertised tuition is $31,024 for 2016-17, and its
average net tuition for the class entering in the fall of 2016 notched
$15,295. Compare that to average annual tuition reported in the
low-to-mid-$6,000 range for SUNY and CUNY.
“I’m not entirely sure this would incrementally put more pressure on
us,” Mortimer said. “It’s already apples and oranges in terms of cost.”
Mortimer voiced other concerns about the tuition-free state college
program, though. New York’s public tuition rates are much lower than
many other states’, he said. New York also has its Tuition Assistance
Program and a two-year federal loan payment program.
Mortimer wonders if the money could be better spent on explicitly
trying to improve graduation rates for those most at risk of dropping
out of college, noting that degree completion generally means being
better able to pay off college loans and secure employment.
“When you look at the demographics of the state, I can’t help but think
that part of this is a competitive play for SUNY and CUNY,” Mortimer
said. “If the governor has access to about $160 million, I do think it
would be much more appropriately applied to [improving] graduation
Advocates maintain that tuition-free programs are better than an
often-confusing mix of financial aid and loans. The simple idea of free
tuition can be enough to encourage more students to enroll, said Morley
Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition.
“The reason you start with free college tuition, regardless of the
requirements or eligibility issues that might be raised, is because the
studies have shown that it drives enrollment up,” Winograd said. “Once
you take the challenge of the cost of a college degree off the table, a
lot more people will sign up to attend.”
Other analysts debated the proposal’s requirement that a student attend
college full time. Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at Demos,
said he had mixed feelings.
The goal should be to promote full-time enrollment while not ignoring
students who need to attend part time, he said.
“We want to take care of the financial burdens that may be preventing
students from going full time,” Huelsman said. “And we want to signal
that the likelihood of completing increases a lot if you attend full
When Sanders talked about free tuition in Queens on Tuesday, he said
other states could follow New York’s lead if it enacts the legislation.
But New York is not the only state to dabble with free tuition --
Tennessee and Oregon have both enacted forms of free community college
programs, for example.
Still, the fact that Cuomo, the governor of the large and visible state
of New York, promoted the free tuition idea in his first policy
proposal of 2017 indicates the idea’s staying power -- particularly as
Democrats seek to regroup from their 2016 setbacks.
“This idea has legs,” Huelsman said. “It’s not going away.”