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Students weigh 'free' tuition that locks them in New York for 4 years

ALBANY – Like many high school seniors, Peyton McConville doesn’t have her life planned out just yet.

But New York state could change that.

McConville and thousands of other college-bound students across the state are now eligible for free college tuition at State University of New York schools after passage of the 2017-18 state budget last week.

But there’s a catch.

She must sign a paper stating that she will live in New York for four years after graduating from college and agree that she “shall not be employed in any other state” during the period.

Violating the agreement will turn “free” tuition at SUNY schools into a loan with undetermined interest rates and undetermined pay back periods. If she decides to attend a private college and gets additional new tuition assistance under the new program, the same restrictions apply.

That means high school seniors like 17-year-old McConville must also think about where they might be living eight years down the road.

“I just feel it’s restricting. I feel like, what if I don’t reach my full potential in what I’m doing in New York? I understand they want people to stay here, but it just sounds really sneaky the way it was put in there,’’ the Lancaster high school senior said of the tuition provisions.

The restrictions were inserted at nearly the final hour of this year’s contentious state budget talks.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo did not have a residency requirement when he floated free SUNY tuition in January. Nor did the Democratic-controlled Assembly in its mid-March budget plan. The GOP-controlled Senate put the idea in its March budget proposal, but the effort did not hit the negotiating table at the most senior levels until March 31 – one day before the new fiscal year, according to sources close to the budget talks.

The governor bought into the residency plan.

“We’re not using our funds to educate a student so that student can go to California. If you want to go to California, go to California now. Let them pay for your education,’’ Cuomo said last week in Rochester.

Free-tuition program would benefit 32,000 SUNY students

Senate Finance Committee Chair Catharine Young, an Olean Republican, was among upstate Republicans pushing for the residency plan.

“Unfortunately, our greatest export from New York state is our young people, and we wanted to build incentives for people to stay in New York … If you are taking a benefit from New York, then you should commit yourself to New York,’’ said Young, whose Southern Tier district continues to bleed population.

Two days after Cuomo signed the “free tuition” measure, a state Assemblyman said he intends to introduce legislation to undo the in-state work requirement.

Requiring graduates to live in New York years for years after graduation “is among the most egregious and punitive’’ measures passed, said Assemblyman James Skoufis, an Orange County Democrat.


Financial hammer

Is New York’s reputation among college graduates in such a state that the government must use a hammer to keep them in the Empire State?

And will job opportunities – or the right opportunities – exist for students who promise to live in New York for tuition assistance when they graduate?

The Cuomo administration responded that New York already has residency requirements for some college loan forgiveness programs, such as for nurses and some teachers.

The STEM Incentive Program makes SUNY available tuition-free for applicants who are in the top 10 percent of their high school class if they get a college degree in science, technology, engineering or math and agree to stay in New York for five years after graduation.

But the state’s new promise of tuition assistance is the first across-the-board restriction tied to general aid for public and private college students. The state’s main college aid program, the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), has no residency rules.The new initiative will not require any tuition payments if the student’s family income is below $100,000 in the coming school year, rising to $125,000 three years ahead.

TAP now covers tuition costs for about 100,000 SUNY students, according to Robert Mujica, Cuomo’s budget director. The new program will expand that number attending tuition-free by about 27,000 students, he said.

In the coming year, the program will provide $88 million in tuition assistance. By the third year, the total will rise to $125 million for tuition payments.

Additional program costs, like aid to community colleges, will bring the program’s total cost to $163 million by year three.

The amounts are ceilings. That means a lottery-like system will be used if student demand exceeds funding. State officials don’t believe it will come to that.

What’s more, students from families with incomes above the cutoff will be expected to pay more tuition. The budget agreement allows each campus to boost tuition by $200 annually over the next four years. That will cost students between $30 million and $40 million annually, the Cuomo advisor said. The new tuition assistance does not help students cover the cost of campus fees, room and board and other expenses.

At the University at Buffalo, the total projected annual cost to attend – covering tuition, fees, room and board – is $22,000 this year. Tuition, at $6,470 annually in 2016-17, comprises less than 30 percent of the total charge for an in-state, undergraduate living on campus.

Precise rules of the program haven’t been completely set. But the budget agreement calls for some residency rule exceptions or deferments, such as personal hardships. That could include moving to care for an elderly parent, military service and inability to find a job in New York. Such cases will be handled on an individual basis, and there is nothing to prevent the state from requiring someone discharged from the military to return to New York to finish their residency requirements.

The state will check on participants’ tax filings to ensure the residency rules are followed.


“Extreme minority” affected?

Only “an extreme minority” of SUNY graduates might be affected by the residency rules, said Mujica, the governor’s budget director.

“They’re staying here anyway,’’ he said, noting that 84 percent of SUNY and City University of New York graduates stay in New York.

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

This is what the most recent statistics from SUNY, compiled through state Labor Department records, show:

  • 83 percent of all SUNY graduates – including from community colleges – are employed in New York a year after graduation
  • Four years after graduation, that number declines to 73 percent
  • 83 percent of associate degree graduates from a SUNY community college had a job in New York the year after graduation
  • That dipped to 81 percent in the second year
  • 83 percent of graduates with a bachelor’s degree were employed in New York a year after graduation
  • By the second year after graduation, 76 percent were employed in the state
  • And four years after graduation, 70 percent were employed in the state

Skoufis, the Assemblyman intent on getting the residency restriction lifted, noted that New York borders five other states, and that many downstate residents work in northern New Jersey and Connecticut.

“This destructive provision needs to be quickly repealed,’’ he said in announcing the push to amend the new law.


Graduate school exemption

One exemption to the post-graduation residency rule allows for students to attend graduate school in other states.

However, once they earn the graduate degree from the out-of-state college, they are required to return to New York and stay for however many years they got financial help. Failure to do so automatically morphs the grants into a loan.

Olivia Harbol, a sophomore history major at SUNY Buffalo State, has thoughts of moving away from New York to experience life elsewhere in the United States and her plans have been to attend graduate school outside of New York.

“The dream of living out of state for a little while is going to be gone,’’ said 20-year-old Harbol, who is from Macedon in Wayne County.

Is she giving pause about taking the tuition benefit given the restrictions?

“I’m going to have to think about it and talk to my mom to see if it’s a good decision,” Harbol replied. “It’s going to make me think about graduate school earlier … and where I’m going to go after these next two years.’’

“It’s a little concerning because if I do plan to take it, I understand that I will have to come back, so I already know what I’ll have to do after graduate school,’’ she said.

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