Jonathan King—Binghamton University
By Kaitlin Mulhere
January 4, 2017

New York could become the next state to offer tuition-free college, reinvigorating a notion that was a key Democratic talking point during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, on Tuesday unveiled a plan that would eventually give free tuition to residents who are accepted to a State University of New York or City University of New York campus, and whose families earn up to $125,000.

New York’s proposal is unique in that it would be the first state program to extend free tuition to four-year campuses. So far, statewide programs in places such as Tennessee and Oregon have focused on two-year colleges.

And indeed, college affordability was a key element in both Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns, as Democrats aimed to appeal to both young voters burdened by student debt and middle-class parents anxious about rising college costs.

Yet while free college makes an easy-to-grasp political soundbite, the details of putting together such a program are far more complex. And the New York plan — which would still need to be approved by state legislators — isn’t as generous as it may seem at first. Here’s why.

1. New York already is home to some of the country’s most affordable public colleges. The 64 SUNY and 23 CUNY colleges are known as some of the country’s best higher education bargains. Current full-time resident tuition is $6,470 at four-year SUNY colleges and $6,330 at four-year CUNY colleges. That puts New York among the 15 states with the lowest in-state tuition and fees, and falls well below the national average of $9,650, according to the annual College Board report on college prices. Graduates of four-year public colleges in New York also have debt loads of about $20,000, according to College Scorecard data — also below the national average.

2. “Free tuition” doesn’t mean “free college.” Tuition makes up less than half the cost of college attendance: Room and board at public colleges is now generally more expensive than tuition, and student fees for everything from science labs to gym equipment seem to grow more common every year. Even under Cuomo’s proposal, full-time students would have to borrow or work a significant number of hours to pay other college-related bills.

Living expenses at SUNY and CUNY schools vary dramatically: Some are largely commuter colleges and others are residential campuses. The estimated annual room and board at SUNY residential campuses, for example, is $12,590. There’s also a student fee that generally ranges between $1,170 to $2,890 and at least a few hundred dollars per semester for books.

In other words, even if the state covers the $6,470 tuition, a student could still need to come up with about $14,500 a year for other college expenses.

3. It’s a “last-dollar” scholarship. Last-dollar scholarships cover the difference between tuition and existing financial aid. In this case, colleges would apply a student’s grants, such as federal Pell grants or state grants, to tuition costs first — with the state then covering whatever is left over. (That’s how Cuomo’s office is able to keep his program to a relatively modest $163 million a year.)

The maximum Pell grant this year is $5,815; grants are awarded on a sliding scale based on financial need, but students from households earning up to $50,000 generally qualify for some money. Just over 300,000 students at SUNY and CUNY colleges received a Pell grant for a total of $1.24 billion in 2014-15, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Education data — although not all were, necessarily, New York residents. And students from New York families earning up to $80,000 also get grant aid of up to $5,165 from the state’s Tuition Assistance Program.

So if you already qualify for $5,000 in some combination of federal and state grants — and you’re paying just under $6,500 per year in SUNY or CUNY tuition — then the new program would give you only an additional $1,500.

To be fair, New York’s proposal isn’t unique in applying its money as last dollar; most active programs, including Tennessee’s and Oregon’s, do as well. But it’s a departure from what Clinton and Sanders were proposing, which called for free tuition before any grants or scholarships were counted — something that would let students put grant money toward other college expenses.

4. It’s primarily for middle-class teenagers. New York’s lowest-income students already get their tuition covered by Pell grants and the Tuition Assistance Program, so this program won’t make college any more affordable for the people who need the most help, as Urban Institute economist Matthew Chingos argues in an op-ed in the Washington Post.

The students who will benefit the most from this plan are students whose families earn too much to qualify for federal and state grants, but less than the free tuition cutoff. That’s families with income that’s roughly in the $80,000 to $125,000 range.

Cuomo’s proposal also limits free tuition to students enrolled full-time. The governor’s office described that as a way to promote on-time completion. But it also largely excludes working adults and single parents — populations that often can only afford to attend part-time.

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