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'Economy will pass us by': Cuomo argues for free SUNY tuition

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Tuesday morning touted his proposal to offer low- and middle-income residents free tuition to New York State's public colleges and universities during an appearance at SUNY Buffalo State.

"You need a college degree," Cuomo said. "That is what is driving the economy."

Cuomo said workers can't "dig your way to a living in this new economy. You have to think your way."

Cuomo said the state cannot afford not to pass the free-tuition program, estimated to cost $163 million.

"Otherwise the economy will pass us by," Cuomo said.

The event ended at about 10:40 a.m. and Cuomo immediately headed to Binghamton University.

Mayor Byron Brown, a Buffalo State graduate, introduced Cuomo at the event held in the Campbell Student Union.

"Too many young cannot afford to walk these halls," Brown said.



Under his proposal which needs legislative approval, 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.

Cuomo unveiled the plan in New York City last month alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders, who promoted a free college tuition program during his unsuccessful Democratic presidential primary bid.

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 average cost of a community college in the state is $4,350.

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.

But higher education policy experts and private college presidents are among those questioning whether “free tuition” is the most effective way to get more students through college. Among the concerns:

  • Will public colleges and universities be able to keep pace with higher demand without sacrificing quality;
  • The use of limited resources to help a broad spectrum of families, many of whom can afford to pay tuition, instead of targeting more aid toward lower-income families;
  • Whether the state will be able to sustain free tuition as college costs grow, and whether other areas of higher education funding will suffer; and,
  • The possibility that increased competition for seats in selective state colleges and universities will squeeze out low-income students and lead to less diverse campuses.

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

[Related: Cuomo's free tuition plan needs changes, lawmakers say]

The state is home to more than 100 private colleges and universities, in addition to a network of 89 public colleges and universities in the State University of New York and City University of New York. Cuomo’s plan would drive up higher education costs and put some private colleges out of business, to the detriment of students and taxpayers, according to some private sector presidents.

“I think all of us in the private sector applaud the governor for trying to find a way to get more students into college and on to a degree,” Gary A. Olson, president of Daemen College in Amherst, one of 11 private non-profit colleges and universities in Western New York, told The Buffalo News last month. “I’m sure that all the intentions are good. But what I’m seeing and he may not be seeing is the unintended consequences.”

Small private colleges in particular, which tend to rely on tuition for the bulk of their revenue, already face tremendous financial pressures due to a continued declined in the population of traditional college-aged students across most of New York and in other parts of the Northeast and Midwest.

Olson said the governor’s plan as it now stands would create havoc in the state’s higher education landscape, potentially steering tens of thousands of students from private colleges and universities onto SUNY campuses that won’t have the capacity to handle the influx.

“They would be completely overwhelmed,” he said.

The state would then have to spend even more money on additional faculty and staff and facilities, added Olson.

While community colleges are included in Cuomo's tuition proposal, they worry that the plan undercuts the price advantage community colleges have over four-year public colleges and universities.

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.

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