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Cuomo's free tuition plan needs changes, lawmakers say

ALBANY – State lawmakers spent hours Tuesday seeking – and not getting – many of the answers that they have sought over an increasingly controversial plan by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to provide free tuition to some public college students.

In the morning, it was Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York, who was unable to answer questions about the $163 million Excelsior Scholarship program that Cuomo proposed last week in his 2017 state budget.

“We should be able to answer that for you and by golly we will,’’ Zimpher told one lawmaker.

In the afternoon, the Cuomo administration sent in a surprise witness -- state operations director James Malatras, to field some lawmakers' inquiries in what was the first day of public hearings on Cuomo's budget.

But Malatras did not publicly lay out all the answers.

Among the things not specified: the formula used by the administration to come up with the $163 million proposal – a number lawmakers believe is low, or is to fund a program that would be highly restrictive in scope.

The only thing clear from the day’s appearances by top state officials at a joint Assembly and Senate fiscal hearing was that Cuomo’s tuition plan is in store for some changes once budget negotiations begin in earnest in coming weeks.

Among the concerns raised by lawmakers:

* The impact of Cuomo’s plan to restrict eligibility only to students who take at least 15 credits each semester, which they say could hurt many students who have families or jobs and can’t take a full class load.

Cuomo officials Tuesday night said students do not have to carry 15 credit hours per semester to qualify for the free tuition program, so long as they complete 120 hours of credits within four years from when they start college.

* The impact on private colleges and universities – key employers in many regions of the state – who will lose students to what the Cuomo administration believes will be a 10 percent increase in enrollment at SUNY. They also have to face a plan to either limit their own tuition hikes or lose the ability of students at their colleges to get certain state financial aid.

Malatras dismissed the notion that a $163 million program by the state will be a “tipping point” for the financial health of private schools. And, he said the state already provides $400 million to private colleges, such as the 90,000 students at those facilities who get money from the Tuition Assistance Program.

* Whether SUNY has the “capacity” to handle a spike in enrollment. Zimpher noted Tuesday that many four-year colleges don’t have that capacity and so it will fall to community colleges to pick up the additional expected students.

* What happens to some students with the grades to now get into a SUNY college as they face stiffer competition for admission even to so-called “safety schools” by students who now might choose to go to a private college?

How many students would participate? No one really knows. Zimpher put an initial number of 80,000 students who will qualify.

But, that number is based only on a calculation by SUNY of students already in the system – or at least who were in the 2014-15 academic year – and who met the program’s eligibility of family incomes under $125,000 and carrying 15 credits per semester. Add in financial aid already offered those students and the number of current SUNY students who would qualify for the program drops to less than 40,000, SUNY officials later estimated.

There are about 600,000 full- and part-time students at SUNY colleges. The Cuomo administration earlier this month estimated 200,000 students will benefit from the plan at both SUNY and the City University of New York.

The Cuomo administration made clear Tuesday that its plan is meant to address the state’s sour on-time graduation rates.

They said 39 percent of SUNY students at four-year colleges graduate in four years, and 9 percent of community college students do so in two years.

“The purpose for the program is to encourage a change in behavior,’’ Elsa Magee, vice president of Cuomo’s Higher Education Services Corp., told lawmakers of restricting the free tuition offer to students taking 15 credits per semester and an end to the aid after four years at SUNY colleges.

Lawmakers questioned the sweeping way in which the tuition plan has been portrayed.

They noted the program will do nothing for low-income students whose tuition is already covered by state and federal financial aid because it does not include helping with expenses for ever-rising campus fees and room and board.

In her testimony, Zimpher was unable to say what the tuition plan might cost the SUNY system, how it might affect disabled students unable to take a full course load, or precisely how SUNY would handle the increased enrollment levels.

To concerns about out-of-state students coming to New York for free tuition, Zimpher could not give lawmakers the plan's residency restrictions.

Malatras later said it is for students who have at least a year of residency in the state.

[Related: Cuomo seeks free tuition for those making less than $125,000]

“You should give us numbers very, very quickly,’’ implored Sen. Kenneth LaValle, a Suffolk County Republican and chairman of the Senate’s higher education committee, about the March 31 deadline for an on-time budget.

While he is offering free tuition to some, Cuomo's budget also calls for SUNY to be able to raise tuition up to $250 each year for the next five years. That is on top of a 30 percent SUNY tuition hike for undergraduate residents over the past five years.

Cuomo's $162 billion budget focuses on middle class

Lawmakers tossed various eligibility scenarios at Zimpher, like someone emancipating their child in order to meet income eligibility.

“Today, I’m just not sure we can answer the potential loopholes,’’ she said.

Zimpher said SUNY would conduct a quick study to get a clearer picture on the program’s impact on colleges and students. She ended up agreeing with lawmakers that no decision can be made about approving or rejecting the tuition plan “until we know we can handle the capacity,’’ she said.

Zimpher, speaking to reporters after her testimony, also punted on a question about private colleges’ concerns that their enrollments will decline if the state gives free tuition to some public college students. The Cuomo plan also calls for limiting state “Bundy Aid” to private institutions that raise their tuition beyond a certain level each year.

“Well, I think that’s a question for the governor’s office,’’ she said, about the private colleges’ complaints.

Zimpher did not specifically answer when asked if SUNY was cut out of the work that went into the details of the free tuition plan.

But she said she could not give several financial assumptions about the program to lawmakers just yet.

“My concern was not get ahead of the governor’s office in providing the assumptions they’ve used to get to $163 million. I can’t do that for them, and they’re not done yet,’’ she said.

The $162.2 billion budget was proposed last week.

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