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Free SUNY tuition plan could alter New York's higher-ed landscape

Public and private college presidents hold completely different views of the new tuition-free scholarship program for State University of New York colleges – an initiative pushed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that figures to change the higher-education landscape in New York State.

Those at public institutions – where students from families earning less than $100,000 a year won’t have to pay tuition – like the new Excelsior Scholarship program.

“From what we understand so far, we are pleased to see the state continue its commitment to public higher education – especially with the passage of the Excelsior Scholarship program,” said University at Buffalo President Satish K. Tripathi.

But those at private colleges are worried. They could lose students attracted by the promise of free tuition at the public colleges.

“I think it’s sad that both the governor and the legislature chose to disadvantage what amounts to be more than 50 percent of higher education in the state of New York, which is what this budget does,” said Gary A. Olson, president of Daemen College in Amherst.

Private college presidents worry how the program will affect their institutions, which employ more than 3,000 people and have an economic impact of hundreds of millions of dollars in Erie County alone.

Senate gives final passage to controversial state budget

The tuition-free scholarship program, included in the new state budget, dominated the conversation Monday among higher-education leaders, as they tried to digest exactly what the budget meant for their institutions.

The scholarship program starts in the fall. Students attending public colleges from families earning less than $100,000 a year will not have to pay tuition. The income cap rises to $110,000 in 2018 and reaches $125,000 in 2019. The program does not cover room and board, fees or other expenses. The program is expected to cost taxpayers more than $160 million the first year.

The program comes with conditions.

Students must:

  • Enroll full time at a SUNY campus
  • Average 30 credits per year
  • Graduate on time, although the program offers some flexibility so that students facing a hardship can stop, restart or take fewer credits one semester
  • Maintain a minimum grade point average, which will vary depending on the college and program
  • Live and work in New York State after graduation for the same number of years they received the college financing – or the grant becomes a loan

“I think that the Excelsior Scholarship is a really good thing for the citizens here in New York,” said SUNY Buffalo State President Katherine S. Conway-Turner. “I think it will certainly motivate more students to move quickly through in four years and decrease the number of people who will stop-out for financial reasons.”

Erie Community College President Jack Quinn agreed, although it’s hard to know right now what this will mean for applications to state schools.

But getting students to complete college is the key, Quinn said.

“The governor’s tuition program will certainly encourage students to this completion, and ECC is ready to be one of the state’s 64 SUNY institutions that hosts this nation-leading effort,” Quinn said.

Private colleges, however, contend students and families don’t realize all the restrictions of the scholarship program.

For example, Olson said, the program requires students to graduate on time, and privates tend to have a better track record doing that.

Students also will be required to live and work in New York State after graduation for the years of financing they receive – or else the grant becomes a loan.

“The rationale is clear,” Gov. Cuomo said Monday during a budget debriefing with reporters. "Why should New Yorkers pay for your college education and then you pick up and move to California?”

Colleges see 'hostility' in Cuomo plan threatening grants

For Hilbert President Cynthia A. Zane, it’s a "Gordian knot.”

College presidents devote their lives to ensuring access for people to obtain a higher education, she said. At the same time, Zane said, private colleges are a better fit for some students.

She also questions why the state would implement something that could hurt private colleges.

Zane said it was too early to tell what this would mean for her college in Hamburg.

“I don’t know,” Zane said. “In some ways we’re going to have to go through an enrollment cycle or two to see. We have intentionally begun a more intensive recruiting outreach in anticipation this could happen – and now it has.”

Cuomo acknowledged the privates protested, which is why the state included additional money in the Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, for students attending private schools. Private college students will see a boost in state financial aid of up to $3,000 for those with family incomes less than $100,000.

At D’Youville College, President Lorrie A. Clemo called the scholarship program “bad policy,” but was pleased about the changes in TAP for private college students, which would allow an additional 200 students at D’Youville to be eligible next year.

Olson and Zane were unsure, because the additional TAP for private college students also came with caveats.

It required the schools provide a dollar match and freeze that student’s tuition for the entire time they receive the new type of scholarship.

For the private colleges, it also provides an escape clause: They can opt out of the program if they don’t want to make the financial concessions to students.

As for other issues, the budget also will allow SUNY campuses to raise tuition by $200 per year over the next five years for students whose family incomes are above $100,000. SUNY tuition has risen 30 percent over the past five years.

Tripathi, too, was pleased with the predictable tuition program, which allows families to plan for the cost of a bachelor’s degree. The state budget also provides “enhanced capital funding” to help UB address its aging infrastructure, Tripathi said in a statement. He did not include specifics.

“The capital budget is looking very good for us as well,” Conway-Turner said. “We had a number of projects that we have planned and are moving much more slowly than we really like. This allows us to move the projects forward more quickly.”

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