Free College Tuition Raises Concerns

Gov. Andrew Cuomo just took the first step in creating accessible college education statewide. On April 12, Cuomo signed legislation that will enact the first-in-the-nation Excelsior Scholarship program that will provide tuition-free college for both SUNY and CUNY institutions to middle-class families and those who might not have been able to afford it beforehand.

Under this plan, families making under $125,000 yearly will qualify for tuition-free college, meaning that nearly 80 percent, or more than 940,000 families with college-aged children will be eligible. 

 The plan, proposed by Cuomo back in January, has caught the attention and approval of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Sanders commended Cuomo for his efforts toward creating easily accessible higher education.

“Every American, regardless of income, must have the right to a higher education,” Sanders said. “I congratulate Gov. Cuomo and New York State for helping to lead the nation in that direction.”

A driving force behind the plan lies in the estimation of 3.5 million jobs in New York State requiring an associate’s degree or higher by the year 2024.

The Excelsior Scholarship program will be implemented in phases over the next three years. Beginning in the fall of 2017, families making under $100,000 will be given the opportunity to apply to the program. Within the next year, the cap will be raised to $110,000 and to $125,000 in subsequent years.

Despite its seemingly beneficial attributes, the governor’s plan has been met with skepticism.

While the plan claims that 940,000 families would be eligible, the amount of families who would receive the benefits would be significantly less.

According to The New York Times, the plan will not cover as many families as the governor hopes it will. By the time the plan is fully enacted in 2019, director of State Operations Jim Malatras believes it will only cover 200,000 families rather than the approximate million that had been originally estimated.

New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) Executive Director Blair Horner released a statement on the organization’s website weighing the pros and cons of the plan.

“The Excelsior Scholarship program’s ‘tuition-free’ promise should come with an asterisk; it does not cover everyone and is designed to minimize costs for the state,” he wrote. “The plan only applies to families whose income is less than $125,000.”

He explains that not everyone making less than $125,000 a year would qualify, calling the governor’s plan a “last dollar” program, meaning it will only apply once all other forms of government aid have been applied.  

The program also comes with limitations. Applicants would be required to be enrolled in at least 30 credits yearly and would be expected to maintain a specific grade point average.

Horner regards the governor’s approach to announcing his idea with measured analysis, stating it creates an impression that the program is more than it really is.

He also argued that this is no reason to oppose the plan, stating that for the families who actually receive the scholarship, the benefits will be real.

“The question for Gov. Cuomo is whether this is the first, or last, step,” he said. “If this is the beginning and will be followed with something that was missing from his initial plan – public debate and hearings – then a stronger program will result; a program that will meet the reality of the governor’s rhetoric.”

NYPIRG project coordinator Eric Wood believes that much of opposition towards the plan stems from exclusionary eligibility requirements and many being concerned that the Excelsior Scholarship does little for low-income New Yorkers, and can only be used for tuition payments. Other costs such as room and board, mandatory fees and textbooks are not covered. 

Wood describes those expenses as barriers to an education for low-income families.

“Another risk is that without reform, the scholarship leaves out too many students — who, on top of not receiving aid, now must shoulder another tuition hike,” Wood said. “The plan should be reformed to exclude the residency requirement, and to include undocumented and part-time students.”

Specifically on the SUNY New Paltz campus, the Excelsior Scholarship program is met with mixed reviews. 

While some students see the plan as an opportunity to diversify a college’s population and give everyone equal opportunity, others are not so quick to jump on board.

First-year marketing major Julian Francisco says he is all for the plan, as long as it is what is being made out to be.

“Tuition-free college could be great; it would give opportunity for higher education to people who maybe wouldn’t have had it otherwise,” he said. “My only worry lies in the logistics behind the entire plan-is it really what it is being made out to be? Where is all the money coming from?”

Second-year English major Rachel Crook sees the possibility of the plan in two shades.

“It’s a great idea in theory but, I don’t think it would be able to work in the real world;  of course an educated populous is ideal and you want everyone to have the highest level of education they want. However, I think it would bring down the value of a higher state-funded education,” she said. “I know that sounds bad, but say state tuition becomes free everywhere: everyone has a degree, it’s like a high school degree. Then the only valued education would be private college/grad school, which would end up costing way more than it already does because of this new value gap.”

Second-year communication disorders major Maddy Brower finds the Excelsior Scholarship program to be a gray area.

“It’s difficult to gage the effect it will have on people; personally, I fall into a weird category where my family makes too much to qualify but we will still be up to our necks in student debt,” she said. “I think one day it could potentially help future generations and offer diversity on campus that is less obvious; it won’t be so apparent who is and who is not attending their university or college on scholarship, further leveling the playing field.”