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Another Voice: Free tuition program will expand access to college

By Jim Malatras

The key to economic mobility for our working- and middle-class families is higher education. By 2024, 3.5 million jobs in New York State will require an associate’s degree or higher – roughly 420,000 more jobs than in 2014.

However, for many of our working- and middle-class families, college is still out of reach.

That’s why Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed the Excelsior Scholarship that would make more than 900,000 families making up to $125,000 a year eligible for free tuition at any of our public colleges – SUNY and CUNY. The governor’s plan would be the first in the nation to offer free tuition for both community colleges and four-year schools.

But the governor’s bold plan has been twisted and distorted by some special-interest groups.

Many opponents have criticized the program’s low cost as inaccurate and a misrepresentation. Nothing could be further from the truth. While it’s true the cost of the program is low, that is because it leverages New York’s already robust Tuition Assistance Program with federal grant funding, and then fills in any remaining gaps to close the “last mile” of tuition costs.

Other special interests have decried that the plan treats private schools unfairly. Not even close. The governor believes in choice in education. That is why this year the governor’s budget provides more than $400 million in state assistance to private colleges – supporting some 90,000 students attending these schools across the state. But the fact is, tuition at New York’s private colleges is much higher than at public institutions.

The state simply cannot make private school tuition-free, nor should it fully underwrite significant private school tuitions.

Finally, some have complained that incentivizing a student to graduate on time is a bad thing. The program, while flexible to fit individual student needs, works to significantly reduce student debt by incentivizing students to graduate on time by limiting the free tuition to two or four years, depending on the school. Currently, 91 percent of community college students and 61 percent of four-year students don’t graduate on time. That is simply unacceptable because it drives higher costs and more student debt.

Nationwide, student debt is $1.3 trillion, surpassing credit card debt, car debt and home equity lines of credit as the second-largest source of consumer debt. The governor’s program will work to reverse this trend by improving graduation rates and encouraging on-time completion.

The governor’s Excelsior Scholarship free tuition program is a common-sense way to expand access to higher education for all New Yorkers.

A hundred years ago, having a high school diploma provided workers with a competitive advantage. Today, a college degree has become the basic ticket of admission to the economic opportunity in our economy. For the good of New York, and for the future of our workforce, the Excelsior Scholarship is making that ticket available to everyone.

Jim Malatras is director of state operations for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

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