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Cuomo seeks free SUNY tuition for those making under $125,000

ALBANY – More than 200,000 New York State college students would get free tuition if they attend a public university or community college in the state and have a family or individual annual income below $125,000, according to a budget proposal from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The proposal, which would need legislative approval, would be phased in over three years.

The plan comes from a governor who in his first year successfully pushed an effort for what was called a “rational” SUNY tuition policy. That program led to five straight years of $300 annual tuition hikes, or a total of 30 percent over the period.

The governor announced the proposal Tuesday at a community college in Queens alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders, who promoted a free college tuition program during his unsuccessful Democratic presidential primary bid this year.

The State University of New York’s tuition is now $6,470 for a resident in an undergraduate program. The total cost for attending SUNY is much higher. For a resident undergraduate attending the University at Buffalo, the total annual cost, including tuition and fees and housing, is estimated at $25,560. For out-of-state students, the price climbs to $42,820 annually. For a resident in a graduate program, the total expense is $31,238.

The free tuition plan by Cuomo is the first he is rolling out as part of a preview of his 2017 State of the State and budget proposals. The outlines of the proposal were provided by a state source with knowledge of the plan.

Details on how the proposal would  work for part-time versus full-time students were not available.

The Cuomo administration on Tuesday, at first, estimated more than 900,000 students could get the tuition-free benefits. Later in the day, an official called the 900,000 number an estimate of the total possible pool of students that could be eligible, based on income, for the benefit. But that number includes students who will not end up going to SUNY, or the City University of New York, or the community colleges that, together, make up the state’s public higher education system.

A far lower number – 210,000 – is what the Cuomo administration projects will actually get free tuition through the effort Cuomo unveiled Tuesday.

SUNY and CUNY together have about 401,000 full-time students; the new tuition benefit would be available only to full-time students.

The program, if 210,000 students do participate, would cost the state $163 million annually by 2019.

The benefit would come on top of other financial assistance already in existence and taken advantage of by hundreds of thousands of students, such as the state’s Tuition Assistance Program and federal Pell Grant program. The administration did not immediately provide details about the number of SUNY and CUNY students whose tuition is now covered by public financial aid grants.

In the first year of the program starting in the fall of 2017, students with individual or family maximum income of $100,000 would qualify, rising to $110,000 in 2018 and then hitting the $125,000 eligibility ceiling in the fall of 2019. The tuition benefit is not tied to student performance. In an effort to encourage graduation in four years, the benefit would not be available to students after their fourth year in college.

Officials were already pitching the plan as a continuation of Cuomo’s “progressive” agenda for New York, which the governor counts as including a sharp rise in the minimum wage, the marriage equality law and stronger gun control provisions known as the SAFE Act.

At the Queens community college event with Sanders, Cuomo said his plan is partly to address rising higher education student debt. “It’s like starting a race with an anchor tied to your leg,’’ Cuomo said of the $30,000 average debt for college graduates.

“This society should say we’re going to pay for college because you need college to be successful," Cuomo said to a gathering that included public university and union leaders.

Sanders joined Cuomo for the event, despite the work Cuomo’s Democratic Party did to help defeat Sanders in last year’s New York Democratic presidential primary against Hillary Clinton. The free college plan was a signature proposal in Sanders’ failed presidential bid.

Sanders said Cuomo’s plan will permit students who work hard “to get the college education you need to make it to the middle class regardless of your family income. That is revolutionary."

Sanders predicted other states will follow if Cuomo’s tuition plan is adopted this year in the state budget.



Whether planned or not, the announcement by Cuomo came as SUNY officials have been pushing to renew its “rational” tuition policy that allowed the college system to raise tuition each year without having to get annual permission from the Legislature and governor. The Legislature last year halted that program, saying five straight years of tuition hikes had been enough.

Proponents say the policy permitted students to plan for regular tuition increases as opposed to spikes in tuition levels that would happen sometimes years apart and with no predictability.

SUNY leaders say they want to amend the $300 annual hikes under the previous tuition increase program to a tiered system. Under the new initiative, which needs approval by lawmakers, SUNY trustees could increase tuition in bands from zero increase to $400 and be permitted to set tuition increases different across its statewide campus system.

Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Assembly’s higher education committee, said she and her Democratic colleagues support free tuition at New York’s public colleges. But, she said, few details about the Cuomo plan have been released yet.

“We don’t know a lot," Glick said. "We don’t know exactly what the alleged $163 million pays for. Does it cover everything? Is it just a TAP (Tuition Assistance Program) expansion? Does it not only raise the level of income eligibility but does it increase the amount of TAP so it fully covers tuition because it doesn’t anymore, even for the poorest students? And if it’s only $163 million, why didn’t we do it before?’’

But Glick said lowering college costs would lower student debt, which she said would have a trickle down effect on everything from car to first-home purchases by college graduates. Moreover, she said, lowering college expenses might persuade some students to pursue majors in college that they might be more interested in but shy away from now because of industry salaries, such as social work or teaching.

Glick said the Cuomo plan also needs to be studied for its possible impact on capacity issues within the SUNY system to accommodate an expected rise in attendance and, in turn, how such a trend might affect ability of in-state students to get into a SUNY or CUNY school.

Appearing on stage with Sanders and promoting the free tuition plan that the Vermont senator pushed in his presidential run is another example of Cuomo’s continued move to the political left.

The proposal even earned Cuomo some rare praise from critics of his policies. The New York State United Teachers union called it “a difference-maker” for tens of thousands of students.

But some lawmakers were quick to call Cuomo’s plan unaffordable and, in the words of Assemblyman Karl Brabenec, an Orange County Republican, “misguided, irresponsible and the kind of nanny-state socialism that perpetuates New York’s image as one the most expensive states in the nation in which to live and operate a business.”

Or, as government watchdog group Reclaim New York put it about shifting more college funding onto state taxpayers, “You don’t need a college degree to know that nothing is free.’’

The Cuomo plan affects only students who attend public colleges. In response, the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents 100 private colleges in New York, said it looks forward “to seeing all New York’s low- and middle-income students included by allowing additional aid to be used at the state’s broad complement of private, not-for-profit higher education institutions.’’

The Cuomo administration said the program would be funded out of the state’s general fund, though it is uncertain how, or if, it might affect the flow of state aid to SUNY and CUNY colleges.

One of the first groups to push out its support for the Cuomo plan was the SUNY Student Assembly, which represents student government leaders on 64 campuses. Also, the United University Professions, a union representing academic and professional SUNY employees, called Cuomo’s plan “the kind of positive, progressive change that UUP’s members would get behind.’’

Cuomo’s State of the State is being amended this year. He is breaking with a century of tradition of governors giving an address to a joint session of the Legislature, taking his speech on the road next week, instead, at six different events. He will be in Western New York next Monday for one of the six speeches.


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