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NY Legislature Aims To Change Cuomo's Free Tuition Plan

SUNY administration in Albany
Patrick Garrett/WAMC
SUNY administration building in Albany

The legislature’s one house budgets make some changes to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s $163 million proposal to offer free tuition at public colleges in New York to some middle class students.

Governor Cuomo’s plan would have the state pay for the tuition of students at public colleges and universities whose combined family income is up to $125,000 a year, when the plan is fully phased in in two years.

It does not cover room and board, books or mandatory fees, which can cost students up to twice as much as the $6,470 a year in tuition costs at the State University system, and $6,330 at the City University system.

Cuomo’s point man for the free tuition plan, Jim Malatras, spoke at a forum sponsored by the budget watch dog group The Empire Center.

“This is not free college,” Malatras said. “This is free tuition.”

Malatras until very recently was Governor Cuomo’s chief of staff, he is now president of SUNY’s Rockefeller Institute.

The plan, known as the Excelsior scholarship program, includes incentives to ensure that more students graduate on time, including requiring that each year, students complete the full-time requirement of 30 credits per year.

Marc Cohen the Student Assembly President for the State University of New York, says the plan addresses the fact that a bachelor’s degree has become the new high school diploma, and necessary for most types of decent paying employment. But he says he wishes there were more in it to help recent graduates who owe tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, among other things.

“More needs to be done,” Cohen said. 

Another negative, at least in the eyes of New York’s more than 100 private colleges, is that they are completely left out of the plan.

Mary Beth Labate is the head of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities.

“It’s really hard to compete with free,” Labate said.

She predicts that some private colleges will close, and others will lay off faculty, impacting the already unsteady upstate economy. She says some private colleges are already postponing planned capital projects, in anticipation of the potential loss of students to public colleges.

Labate says it would be better to expand New York’s existing Tuition Assistance Plan, or TAP, to provide more money and to cover New Yorkers with higher incomes. TAP can be used at both public and private schools.  

Malatras says the governor’s plan is a starting point and expects it to be changed in the upcoming budget negotiations over the next few weeks.

“I’m sure there’s going to be tweaks, changes and enhancements to that program,” Maltaras said.

Senate Republicans, in their one house budget resolution, alter the governor’s free tuition plan. They take the suggestion of the private colleges and instead enlarge the existing TAP program. The GOP plan would up the maximum aid award to $5,500 a year, and increase income eligibility to $125,000 a year. The Senate plan would add new credit requirements to TAP, to encourage graduation in four years.

The Assembly Democrats, in their budget plan, adopt much of the governor’s proposal. Speaker Carl Heastie says the proposal would increase the income eligibility to families making $150,000 a year.

“Under our plan, almost 70 percent of resident student’s families will be able to have their children attend college in New York tuition free,” Heastie said.

The Assembly plan also expands TAP to allow part time students to be eligible for the aid, and addresses student debt, offering a plan to help graduates who owe money to refinance. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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