NYS Exposed: The cost of 'free' college

February 16, 2017 11:33 PM

ROCHESTER — Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to allow most students to go to New York State schools tuition-free but there’s been a lot of pushback from taxpayers -- many of whom are still paying their own college loans back -- about the proposal.

Under the governor's plan, students with a family income below $100,000 would be eligible for free tuition starting this fall. That number would increase to $110,000 next year and $125,000 in 2019.

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The plan would cover the $6,470 yearly cost of tuition at four-year state schools, and $4,350 at two-year programs, it does not cover room and board, books, fees and other costs.

Currently, Oregon and Tennessee offer residents “free” college but only for two-years and only at community and technical schools. The Tennessee PROMISE program started last year. "By the year 2025, 55 percent of the jobs in the state would require some college training and it didn't look like we were going to meet that level of human capital needs,” says Dr. Celeste Carruthers an Economics professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has been researching the program.

The state uses lottery money to make community and technical college tuition-free to eligible students coming out of high school who maintain a 2.0 GPA and commit to a certain number of community service hours per semester.

About 16,500 students took advantage of the program this year, each getting an average grant of about $1,100 which puts the total cost of the program at $25 million a year.

Governor Cuomo says 940,000 New York households with college-aged students would eventually qualify for his program here in New York which he projects to cost $163 million in its first year. There are currently more than 400,000 undergrad students in state schools; $163 million would only cover the full cost of tuition for about 25,000 of them.

Of course, not all 400,000 would qualify for the program under the income guidelines and many will also get Pell and TAP grants toward the cost of tuition first. But where did the governor get his cost estimate? When asked a recent press conference in Rochester, he seemed to indicate the numbers are fluid. "To the extent the legislature wants to come up with suggestions, proposals or tweaks, I'm open to all of it,” he said.

Dr. Carruthers doesn’t see how those numbers work. "I'm kind of puzzled by the cost estimate... I'm curious if there are some eligibility restrictions that I haven't heard about yet because it seems like it would cost much less per student then it does in Tennessee,” she tells News10NBC.

Dr. Carruthers worries Governor Cuomo could be biting off more than he can chew. "Certainly, other states are looking at the free two-year college model first and seeing where that goes,” she adds.

It seems to be a full-steam ahead, four-year approach here in New York though and it’s not just taxpayers who are concerned. Hundreds of thousands of private school students say they’ll be left out.

"I couldn't go to a SUNY school, there just wasn't my program, that wasn't available for me at the time so I didn't have a choice to go to a public school,” says Cassie Plows a student at Utica College.

“I wanted a small school, I knew I was going to be able to learn and get a lot of out of it,” adds Xiomara Rodriguez, a senior at Utica College.

Utica College realized a few years ago that Governor Cuomo is right: College is too expensive. But instead of just continuing to ask students to throw money at it, the college president spent 18 months studying the budget, finding ways to reduce costs.

Last year, full-time students were paying $34,466, this year, under what the college calls a “tuition reset” the price was lowered to $19,996. When asked how she made it work, Dr. Laura Casamento says, "Well, for one thing, you have to have a good story to tell to the market. You can't do this if you are on the heels of overall declining enrollments. You can’t do it if you haven’t had capital construction on your campus, you can’t do it if you don’t have a whole array of programs to attract students.”

The lower price, she says, has actually been a recruiting tool and the college has drawn in new students that make up the difference of what was lost without having to cut any programs or staff. In fact, enrollment was so high this year that Utica College had to rent a local hotel to house on-campus students while it builds a new dorm.

"We knew we’d have to address residential housing if this was a success. We did not think we’d have to address it in the first year,” says Dr. Casamento.

Dr. Casamento along with presidents at other local private colleges, think any increase or shift in funding should benefit a student directly, not just a state school.

"Expand TAP, expand income levels, provide some economic dollar benefit so that if they want to take a certain program at one school or another they can just take that benefit and shift it to the school of their choice,” she says.


Jennifer Lewke

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