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Viewpoints: Governor’s ‘free’ college tuition plan comes at high cost

By Jim Golden
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

Much has been made about the many faults with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s first in the nation “free” college tuition plan, from the innumerable strings attached to the scholarship program and lack of adequate funding, to the undermining of a century-old symbiotic relationship between public and private institutions to meet the educational needs of all New Yorkers. These faults are compelling enough to warrant significant concern for the state and taxpayers, and may undermine the viability of Cuomo’s plan in the near term.

However, and more importantly, while the impetus for such a proposal was to reverse the trend of college graduates, saddled with debt and a sluggish economy, having to forgo the prospects of upward mobility in order to spend the next 25 years paying off student loans, it is in fact the students “helped” by this program, and even those who were not, who will likely suffer the most.

The most glaring fault of the Excelsior Scholarship program is the likelihood of creating a caste system within the higher education system that exacerbates the problem of income inequality among those squeezed out of contention for the scholarship. Given that funding and classroom space are limited, SUNY schools, which once offered a lower-cost alternative for families of modest means, will now become highly competitive battlegrounds for students lucky enough to graduate from the top high schools in the area.

The median household income for the top four school districts in Western New York – East Aurora, Orchard Park, Williamsville and Clarence – all fall comfortably under the Excelsior program’s $125,000 income cap. Further, students from these schools significantly outperform their peers on Regents exams and the SATs, and more than 90 percent of them plan to go to college.

As a result, while students from wealthier districts will be well-suited to compete for the limited spaces available through the Excelsior Scholarship program, average students and those from poorer  districts, the ones for whom SUNY schools were their only option academically or financially, will be left to take on the burden of student loans through private schools. It is highly likely that students from wealthier families will end up going to college for free while their less fortunate peers will be paying for their degree for the next 25 years.

Compounding the problem is the provision that recipients of the Excelsior Scholarship will be required to stay in New York State for the same number of years post-graduation that they received the scholarship. This stipulation is intended to allay taxpayer fears that they will subsidize these students’ education, who will then leave the state once they graduate. The residency requirement is meant to ensure that New Yorkers receive something for their investment, and they will. Higher unemployment and underemployment.

If there is anything New York lacks, it is educated young adults eager to enter the job market. While Buffalo has become a thriving hub of activity for millennials, the reality is that the population of Western New York continues to decline. Underemployment is a significant problem in the region, leading many graduates to seek employment elsewhere, and most often out of state. In fact, according to a 2016 study by the University at Buffalo Regional Institute, underemployment in Western New York is nearly four times higher than unemployment. This can be attributed to a number of factors, including the desire or need for older workers to stay in the job market longer, thus creating fewer employment opportunities for young adults.

However, because of the residency requirement, recipients of the Excelsior Scholarship risk having the scholarship transitioned to a loan if they leave the state to find a job. As such, we’ll have a cohort of graduates competing for the comparatively few low-paying jobs available because they cannot or do not want to leave the region.

While I applaud Cuomo for tackling the issue of college affordability, I fear that he has forsaken prudent policy for political expediency.

Further, while the Excelsior Scholarship program will not fix the problems of the high costs of college, the lack of jobs available for recent graduates or the growing income inequality, it seems abundantly clear that this solution will make these problems much worse.

Jim Golden, MSW, Ph.D., is chairman of the Social Sciences Division at Hilbert College.

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