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Community colleges wary of Cuomo's free tuition proposal

New York State's community colleges could barely keep pace with the influx of students less than a decade ago, when a recession sent displaced workers scrambling for updated skills.

Now, the community colleges are scrambling – trying to fill seats and repair their battered finances.

State officials believe Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's free tuition plan will be a lifeline for community colleges, boosting their enrollments and their bottom lines by luring students who otherwise would not have considered college because of the cost.

But many leaders of community colleges are not so sure.

In Oregon and Tennessee, college enrollments rose significantly when those states implemented free tuition. But those plans gave free tuition only to students attending community colleges.

Cuomo’s proposal would extend free tuition to the 34 campuses of the State University of New York system, as well as to community colleges. It would effectively undercut the price advantage community colleges have over four-year public colleges and universities. In-state tuition for a SUNY college or university currently is $6,470, while the average cost of a community college in the state is $4,350.

Many cost-conscious students use community college as a stepping stone into a four-year SUNY school, and community college leaders worry that, under Cuomo’s plan, those students would bypass their institutions and enroll as freshmen in a four-year program, leading to further enrollment declines.

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

At Erie Community College, enrollment has been falling for seven years, from a high of 13,398 full-time equivalent students in 2009-2010 to a low of 10,800 students who registered last fall.

"At a time when enrollment is on everybody's mind, we can't be doing a single thing that negatively affects enrollment numbers. We've got to make certain this is not one of those things," said ECC President Jack F. Quinn Jr.

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'A big unknown'

In 2016, the University at Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo State enrolled 1,307 students who transferred from community colleges across the state.

More than 500 of those students started at Erie Community College, where a recent marketing survey revealed that affordability was the top reason students chose to attend ECC. The survey also showed that ECC’s top two competitors for students were UB and Buffalo State.

Niagara County Community College in Sanborn sent 206 students to UB and Buffalo State last fall.

"Over the years, it has become one of the most economical deals around," said NCCC President James Klyczek. "For a lot of our students, the financial piece is very big."

None of the community college leaders interviewed by The News said they opposed the free tuition plan. Instead, they await more details about how it would work.

Jamestown Community College President Cory Duckworth said he welcomed any plan that encourages more people to avail themselves of higher education, while adding that "it may have been a little bit of an overreach" by the governor to include four-year institutions in his free tuition proposal.

Jamestown Community College has relied on the difference between its cost and how much other state-operated campuses charge as a significant marketing tool for potential students.

The college would have to shift gears and emphasize other attributes that may make it more attractive than state-operated campuses, such as smaller class sizes and faculty dedicated solely to teaching.

"We're not bereft of other strong market factors that we would certainly push out there," Duckworth said.

JCC is a "strong transfer institution" that sends many students onto state-operated campuses for a four-year degree, Duckworth said. But he didn't know how many of those students would skip over JCC and head directly to a bachelor's degree granting institution, if tuition were free.

"The answer to that is going to be guess work," he said.

State leaders "felt like this was going to bring a flood of students to our doors," he added. "But it's just a big unknown."

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Not for everyone

In addition, Cuomo’s plan would allow for free tuition only for full-time students who complete an associate’s degree within two years or a bachelor’s degree within four years. Part-time students account for a third or more of the student body at many community colleges.

When community colleges experienced enrollment surges during the recession, “it was pretty much returning adults who were out of work,” said Randall J. Van Wagoner, president of Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica.

“The free tuition parameters do not favor returning adults. To be enrolled full time, to finish in two years – those are parameters that support the steady-state, finite number of high school graduates in New York State, which is not growing, particularly in upstate. That does not bode well for community college enrollments.”

Community colleges also stand to lose out because of the economic makeup of another large segment of their campuses: students who already receive enough financial aid to cover the full cost of tuition. They would not be eligible for any additional aid under Cuomo's Excelsior Scholarship program. At ECC, for example, students who graduated from the Buffalo Public Schools are eligible for Say Yes scholarships. In addition, about 43 percent of ECC students receive federal Pell grants, which provide up to $5,815 per year toward tuition.

"For many students at ECC and other community colleges, price is many times not a barrier," Quinn said.

Van Wagoner, who also is president of the New York Community Colleges Association of Presidents, talked about Cuomo's plan at a recent meeting of the SUNY Board of Trustees’ community college committee.

He called Cuomo’s plan “bold and inspiring in theory, but very concerning in practice.”

One of the main worries, said Van Wagoner, is that the free tuition plan – which state officials estimate would cost $163 million a year – would come at the expense of the base aid the state provides annually to community colleges. The governor proposed in his budget retaining the current rate of base aid to community colleges, which is $2,697 per full-time equivalent student. But because student numbers are down, Cuomo's proposal ultimately amounts to a $21 million reduction in state aid to community colleges for 2017-18.

"Common sense says nothing is free," Klyczek said.

[Column: Cuomo's tuition plan is no bargain for the poor]

Klyczek said he would like to see the state concentrate on shoring up its support for community colleges, which are struggling to maintain aging facilities because state base aid hasn't kept pace with rising costs.

"We're still functioning on an FTE reimbursement rate that goes back 10 years," he said.

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Plan's student appeal

NCCC student Derek Pew said he viewed the free tuition plan as a "great idea," as long as it's properly funded and colleges aren't forced to cut back on offerings and services.

Pew said he comes from a lower middle-class family and plans to move on from NCCC to a four-year school, possibly UB.

"I've only been in school two years, and I have a ton of student loans," he said.

If implemented, the free tuition plan could help keep him from adding to the student debt.

Alexis Pace, 19, graduated from the Health Sciences Charter School in 2015 and had been working at a temp agency prior to resuming her studies. Pace enrolled at ECC this month and is concerned she doesn't qualify for financial aid because of her past earnings. But the free tuition plan could open another window of aid for her.

"I'm excited to see where it goes," she said.

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