New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a proposal to offer free-tuition public college education to resident students over the next two years. If approved by the New York State Legislature, the proposal would likely benefit around 200,000 full-time students, although the governor believes that it would benefit thousands more.

Free tuition would supposedly cover students and families who would not qualify for the need-based programs that are already offered by the state, nor would they qualify for the Pell Grant. Such families would supposedly have incomes between $50,000 (the maximum to qualify for the Pell) and $125,000, the maximum stated in the news coverage of Governor Cuomo’s proposal.

Could such a proposal work in New York State?

In some ways, it is more feasible than it is in other states—and here’s five reasons why:

* The SUNY and CUNY systems are run through central offices, have standard liberal arts graduation requirements and they already have experience managing need-based and merit-based aid programs.

* Resident tuition in the State University of New York (SUNY) as well as the City University of New York (CUNY) systems are already among the lowest in the US, averaging under $6,500 for the current academic year for a four-year college. That’s less than half the in-state charges in New Jersey or Pennsylvania.

* Since 1948, SUNY has been a national model for accessibility as well as affordability. According to the system’s Web site, 93 percent of New Yorkers live within 15 miles of a SUNY campus, and nearly 100 percent live within 30 miles of one. With the exceptions of Binghamton, Fashion Institute of Technology, Purchase and Stony Brook, less than ten percent of the enrollment at CUNY or SUNY campuses comes from outside of New York.

* The lower resident costs help ensure that the federal Pell Grant easily covers the full costs for community college tuition and fees in New York. The combination of the Pell with the state’s Tuition Aid Grant will cover most of the resident tuition at a four-year school. SUNY also has a generous Educational Opportunity Program while the CUNY system also has the Macauley Honors program for high achievers. The state also awards merit-based scholarships up to $1,500/year through its Higher Education Services Corporation.

* The SUNY flagships are not as invested in athletics as peer institutions in other states. New York is one of the few states where a football or basketball coach is not the highest paid public employee.

What might make it less workable?

* Full-time students still have the costs for fees and room and board, unless they live at home. For example, at SUNY-Purchase, the full-time fees come close to $1,000 a year. If that student needs to purchase health insurance, she would pay an additional $1,300. A music student would pay another $2,500. A Purchase student who paid no tuition would still need to pay another $15,000 or more if she lived on campus. It is likely that each residential college would increase these costs, no matter the tuition charge.

* Aside from the costs and questions about the number of students who would benefit, SUNY faculty have worked with no raises for the past six years while tuition and fees increased. A subsidy would be needed in place of tuition revenues to pay the current salaries, let alone increases in pay. The same would be true for administrators. I would expect a hiring freeze in the first two to four years that free tuition was in place—and this includes staff that work directly with students to aid them towards academic and career success.

* The subsidy issue is also true for the costs of facilities that do not generate income for colleges, such as classrooms and libraries. New public investments in higher education would likely be limited to those that can pay down debt through income, including residence halls, student centers, even university/business partnerships where private sector dollars would match public money. Expect deferred maintenance projects to keep piling up if SUNY and CUNY were tuition free.

* For practical purpose free tuition would need to run in synch with the other state and federal programs that aid the highest-achieving as well as the neediest students. Many of those students qualify for aid that goes beyond tuition. Most likely, a free tuition policy would allow a full-time student to have up to six years to complete a degree, or some additional financial incentive would be needed to encourage students to finish in four. I can imagine the reactions among the fiscally conservative citizens and politicians in New York.

* A free tuition policy would make the most selective schools in the CUNY and SUNY systems even more selective. That will likely crowd out qualified students from poorer-performing high schools. If an admissions office has the choice between admitting a student who needs remediation versus one who does not, and both would pay no tuition, that office is going to choose the student who is more likely to succeed.

* If the state was to subsidize more SUNY students at a lower level than those students might pay on their own, it is quite likely that the campuses that have the most appeal to non-residents will most likely try to recruit more of them to earn more revenues. For example, a non-resident who considers Binghamton, the most selective, and probably the most nationally known, of the SUNY flagship schools, pays around $21,600 in tuition, more than triple the charge for New Yorkers.

A free tuition program would undoubtedly be popular in public polls in New York, especially among students and parents who struggle to cover college costs. However, it comes at a major price not only for the subsidies but also for the students and the schools.

Please comment on this and other College Insights, or contact me at stuart@educatedquest.com

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