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Cuomo pushes free tuition to drive new economy, but legislator pushes back

If Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposal for free tuition passes the New York State Legislature this budget session, Chyna Sourzes will get her final year's tuition at SUNY Buffalo State paid.

"I'm hoping it goes through in time," said Sourzes, a business administration major.

Sourzes won't get the benefit of four years of free tuition, but every little bit helps. The junior from Queens already has enough loans waiting for her after she graduates.

"If I was a freshman, I would be really happy now," she said. "I think it's an amazing idea."

Cuomo stopped at Buffalo State on Tuesday to promote his plan to provide free tuition at public colleges and universities in New York State for resident students in families that earn $125,000 or less per year.

In a 20-minute talk to a few hundred people inside Campbell Student Union, Cuomo described a new economy in which employees no longer are being asked to labor in manufacturing plants using their backs and biceps.

"You're not going to dig your way to a living in this new economy. You have to think your way," Cuomo said. "This is an economy about what you know. It's an economy of copyrights and patents and intellectual property. That's what our economy is all about."

A high school education might have been enough to earn a good living in the past, but now "we have to recalibrate. You need a college degree," Cuomo said.

The governor described it as "a moment of transformation" in the world.

"And the first country, the first state, to get this will be the leader in this new economy," he said.

Cuomo also reiterated his estimate that the proposed Excelsior Scholarships would cost $163 million a year – an expense that would account for a "miniscule" portion of the state's overall $30 billion of annual spending on education.

"We can't afford not to do it, because otherwise, the economy will pass us by," he said.

Cuomo didn't offer more details about the plan, which would rely on existing federal and state financial aid programs, while adding $163 million in state tax dollars for Excelsior Scholarships that pay for tuition costs not covered by the traditional aid programs. He left Buffalo State without taking questions from reporters and headed to Binghamton University.

[Related: Free SUNY college tuition? That raises lots of questions]

State legislators have plenty of questions about Cuomo's figures.

"What are the true costs going to be?" asked Assemblyman Ray Walter, R-Amherst. "If it goes in as the governor proposed, I would presume you're going to see a big influx into the SUNY system."

Such an influx would only add to SUNY's costs when the system already has been underfunded.

Walter also said the plan would likely hurt community colleges and private colleges and universities and doesn't help recent graduates who struggle to pay back student loans.

[Related: Community colleges wary of Cuomo's free tuition proposal]

If the governor really wants to help more students attend college, Walter said, he would simply expand eligibility for the state's Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, which follows eligible students regardless of the type of higher education institution they attend.

"That would be the most efficient way to do it," said Walter.

But Walter suggested that Cuomo had other motives for his plan, which has garnered national attention.

"Bernie Sanders isn't going to come to a press conference with you if you're just going to announce your expanding TAP," he said. "This isn't about how we help students. This is about how we help Gov. Cuomo reinforce his progressive credentials for a presidential run. This is all sizzle and no steak."

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, a University at Buffalo alumnus, and Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Byron, who graduated from Buffalo State, introduced Cuomo and expressed their support for the free tuition plan.

"Some of the best memories of my life were made right here on this campus," Brown said. "Unfortunately, too many young people today cannot afford to walk these halls."

Buffalo State President Katherine S. Conway-Turner also said she supported the concept of free tuition. But she said SUNY colleges and universities want to be assured the campuses won't bear expanded costs associated with a new program.

SUNY has been pushing for years a “maintenance of effort” provision in the budget to cover collective bargaining costs and allow campuses to be reimbursed for inflationary operational costs, such as utilities and rent.

Cuomo's plan would freeze tuition for Excelsior Scholarship recipients at the current $6,470, which would appear to cap the amount campuses receive in the future.

"Of course, costs don't stay flat," Conway-Turner said.

Students were mostly enthusiastic about Cuomo's proposal, although some had questions, and others expressed some disappointment that free tuition hadn't arrived sooner.

Shahadah Williams of Syracuse expects to graduate in May with a sociology degree and $25,000 in loan debt. She also would like to attend graduate school, and will probably need to take out more loans. Free tuition would have limited at least some of the undergraduate debt.

"I wish it was in place for me," she said.

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