The proposal for free tuition at New York's public colleges

UAlbany entrance fountain

On Tuesday Andrew Cuomo floated a plan to for the state provide free tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools for students from middle- and low-income households. Details blurbage from the Cuomo admin:

New York's tuition-free degree program, the Excelsior Scholarship, requires participating students to be enrolled at a SUNY or CUNY two- or four-year college full-time. The initiative will cover middle-class families and individuals making up to $125,000 through a supplemental aid program. Currently 80 percent of NY households statewide make $125,000 or less with an estimated 940,000 households having college-aged children that would be eligible for the program. Based on enrollment projections, the plan will cost approximately $163 million per year once fully phased in.
The new initiative will be phased in over three years, beginning for New Yorkers making up to $100,000 annually in the fall of 2017, increasing to $110,000 in 2018, and reaching $125,000 in 2019.

The Cuomo admin says the proposed program would work in conjunction with the already existing Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and federal aid.

During the announcement Tuesday, Andrew Cuomo framed the idea as a way of reducing student loan debt -- "Debt is so high it's like staring a race with with an anchor tied to your leg." -- as well as a matter of economic competitiveness for both individuals and the state: "In this economy, you need a college education if you're going to compete."

Bernie Sanders joined Cuomo for the announcement and predicted that if New York runs with the idea, other
states would follow.

Here are a few other quick things about this idea...

How much does college cost now?
Annual tuition for SUNY and CUNY schools is $6,470-$6,330 for four-year degree programs, and $4,350-$4,800 for two-year programs.

Of course, that's just tuition. There are other costs often associated with attending (such as room and board). And those add up. For example: The projected total cost of attendance for UAlbany this school year for in-state students is almost $24k (that includes living on campus).

So, that's a significant chunk of money -- especially if you come from a family without much financial wealth.

That said, in the universe of college attendance costs, that's not bad. In 2015 the Obama administration's college score card initiative figured the cost of attendance for many SUNY schools was about the national average. And it tagged tagged UAlbany as an "engine of opportunity" for "contributing to mobility into the middle class through offering an affordable education to many low-income students."

It pays to finish
The people who get hit most by the cost of college: the students who attend, but don't graduate. Because you rack up the cost without most of the career benefit.

The Cuomo administration alludes to this point in the announcement, citing some shockingly low numbers for the percentage of students who graduate on time (though the numbers are from 2013 and "on time" isn't defined). Here are the US Department of Education's college scorecard for New York's public schools ranked by graduation rate -- some have high rates, others are demoralizingly low.

It's a little odd that the Cuomo admin talks about the how the free tuition program "incentivizes" students to graduate on time by prompting them to go full-time. Surely students play a big role in whether they get out on time, but schools play a part in that, too. And the announcement doesn't mention anything about leaning on colleges to do their part.

But maybe college isn't for everyone
Andrew Cuomo during Tuesday's announcement: "College is a mandatory step if you really want to be a success."

The numbers do back up the case that you're probably going to be much better off economically with a degree.

Even a lot of the jobs that people might think of as "school" jobs now require at least some sort of schooling or training beyond high school. Check out the job ad for this machinist position at GE Power in Schenectady -- it requires an associates degree, or a one-year certificate, or participating in an apprentice program. And if you talk with someone who has a job like this about what they do, you'll quickly learn that working in one of these places and operating the equipment require serious, valuable skills.

An important question, though, is what's the best way to help people learn these sorts of skills? Maybe it's not college in the sense we traditionally think of it -- because there are all sorts of people in the world and not everyone is going to find a fit sitting in a traditional classroom, and it has nothing to do with intelligence. Maybe there can also be good paths via more robust apprentice programs or some sort of other training -- paths that might be cheaper or quicker for people to navigate. Exploring that idea is worth some attention, too.


So glad I worked so hard to save and cut corners and lead a Spartan lifestyle so I could get my degree......I should have waited and it'd free! My father gave me such lousy advice about work and life!!!!

I support efforts like this to make public college more accessible to lower- and middle-income students.

The concept of low-cost or no-cost tuition for NYS public colleges and universities is not a new one -- back in the 1960's and early 1970's, the cost of tuition at NYS colleges was quite low. In fact, public colleges were established to make higher education more affordable to lower- and middle-class students. Over time, tuition increased as the state cut back on its support, and public college became less affordable.

I'm glad to see 2-year community colleges included in Gov. Cuomo's proposal. We need greater support for vocational programs and apprenticeships, which, in my mind, are just as important as 4-year college.

It is funny that you misspelled tuition in the heading.

Editors: Blame Greg and his private college degree. Fixed. Thanks.

You make a very good point - this money would go toward tuition and not room and board, which is roughly 2/3 of the cost at a state university. Stay home with mom and dad and you're going to college for free, but most kids want to go away and have the "college experience", and for that you have to pay.

Reading the comments online after this announcement is so depressing. Between the "It's not free! That's our taxes!" (duh) and the "if *I* paid for college, then why should it be free for other people?!" (because that's how you start systemic changes, right?), it makes you want to force some more college on half of Facebook...

One thing I still missing:
There is almost 1 million eligible families according to CUomo - makes sense, there are 12900 undergrad students in UAlbany alone, and slightly more than 400,000 undergrads in entire SUNY system.
Total funding for the program is promised to be $163M/year. Tuition is in the range of $4300-$6500/year, so anywhere between 38,000 and 25,000 students can have tuition paid for. Not 1 million.
Seems that numbers don't add up...

I want free room and pizza and beer....I need a car too!! Let's make some "systemic" changes!!! Paper pens...a computer....eventually I'll need some rehab money for my crazy college lifestyle....then I'll need money for my kids to go to school too!

Why make it tied to income? If you make more than $125k you probably want to send your kid to a better school anyway. Why exclude the highest taxpayers from a taxpayer funded program?

If Cuomo wants those with student loan debt to support his new free college tuition proposal, he should allow existing student loan payments to qualify for a significant NYS tax deduction.

I am against this because it does not directly benefit me.

Also, those millennials are so self centered!!

@BS, You might remember that public colleges were basically at no cost to the student until the 1980s. The CUNY system was a pinnacle of higher education that allowed New York City to become one of the education capitals of the world, and it was basically tuition free until the 1990s. It's also a fundamental component of democracy. You might ask yourself "what is the cost of not doing this?" I'd say it's far higher. Or "what is the cost of putting students deeply in debt?" Student loan debt is depressing the economy which also depresses your standard of living. This is the smartest investment we can make as a society. New York hopefully will be a pioneer. How about we have a mature conversation instead of cheap rants.

Paul that's an interesting point about public colleges that I wasn't aware of, the relative costs then vs. now.

@Paul - there is no such thing as free lunch. There is free for all 12-year school system running at $20k/year, for a total of about $250k per student. While it is free for students and parents, we all eventually pay off that "debt" - as property tax, state tax and what not.
College tuition is surprisingly cheap compared to schools, but still costs will come back in some form. Taxes, I guess.
And as housing, meals, books, fees etc still need to be paid separately, student debt will still exist.
A reasonable idea overall, but I would prefer realistic breakdown of financial consequences for all of us, not an unrealistically small number.

@first Mike comment: I did some similar back-of-the-envelope math and got a similar result. But the complication is figuring out how the actual cost/how many students would benefit is that the program would be "last dollar" funding. So the Excelsior Scholarship would fill in the gap in tuition cost left by other sorts of aid -- it wouldn't necessarily be covering the full amount.

Here's a quick discussion of the setup, along with some other questions involved. [via]

On a related note: Any time a government/org floats something like this, it should include an easy-to-read "show your work" doc with the math backing it up.

I'm really struck by how we view a college and university education as solely preparation for a job: We do a cost-benefit analysis to see if a college education offers a good value, and even rate colleges on the success rates of placing graduates in well-paying jobs.

True, a college education has always been preparation for graduate study in many fields or the terminal degree for some -- for example, pre-law, pre-med, education, engineering, computer science. So there has always been a "vocational" aspect to some courses of study in college.

Equally true, college costs a whole bunch of money. Maybe even more today, relatively-speaking, than 40 or 50 years ago. So the "value proposition" of a college education naturally comes into play.

I can't help thinking that we've lost something by focusing primarily on job training when weighing the value of a college education.

For me, my college experience paid off the most for my personal growth and development. In my gaining exposure to fields of study I never would have considered otherwise. In gaining exposure to people, ideas, and ways of thinking I might never have known otherwise.

I can't tabulate the dollar value of my college experience. And I suspect my liberal arts view is pretty "old-school" in these modern times. But I do feel like something has been lost in our search for an economic payoff to college.

@BS: why would you put the word systemic in between quotes...

Free education has been put in place by many countries, as early as the 19th century. As somebody already pointed out, this is the smartest investment we can make as a society. The ripple effects of slamming people with student loans is non-sensical. It's not magical, free money -- this is a money/tax allocation. But this is not a decision that should be left to our selfish selves.

Could someone please let me know how much EXACTLY does SUNY Albany or Hudson Valley cost yearly. I think its around $3000-6,000 per year for tuition. I made that amount of money in the 80's painting houses, doing landscaping, and moving furniture. I played by the rules. I worked hard. I struggled. I still struggle. I want to know why I am made to feel bad because I don't feel like paying so much for subsidized housing, drug rehab, needle exchange programs,free condoms, contraception, abortion, EITC,CTC,CHIP, SNAP, UI, TANF,SSI,ACA, library taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, auto excise tax, section 8 housing, Head Start, Pell Grants, WIC, Lifeline, LIHEAP to name just a few! I want industry and jobs...period!

Well BS, I think the logic is that people can't always succeed given circumstances of life that are beyond their control, and that it's beneficial (and saves money and resources for everyone in the long run) to help everyone to succeed.

On the other hand, perhaps you think that the playing field is already level, and that people who struggle to get ahead in life just need to work harder and pull themselves up by their boot straps. In that case...maybe you should have worked harder?

@BS, from the SUNY Albany website - tuition for full time, in-state, undergraduates is $6,470. That's just tuition, nothing else.

BTW out of state is $21,550

for 12+ credits, full year in-state costs: Tuition $6.5k, fees $3k, room $8k, meals $5k, for a total $22 k (I rounded numbers a bit, see above for better ones)
At least first year out-of-town undergrads are required to live on campus, pay for dorm room and meal plan.

I think some of the Ivies (I know Harvard does) offer free college tuition for students from households making less than $65,000 and then you only pay a percentage of tuition (capped at 10%) for households making up to $100,000 a year (again, my numbers may be off but the gist is the same). That being said, it's a huge assumption that students from those households even *know* about this offer, nor have the cultural and/or academic capital to get accepted in the first place. Unless the awareness of these programs and the expectation of college attendance starts from day 1, it's a great offer, but one in theory only.

@Nick- Agreed 100%. It is unrealistic to expect those who are burdened with student loan debt to pay into a system that gives others access to free college, while not giving them the same benefit. There needs to be an equivalent benefit for those with student loan debt to support this legislation.

I once took a class where we discussed how America has very little sense of solidarity, which is why we can't have nice things like universal healthcare and free college.

Essentially, Americans are super individual-focused and can't stand the idea of their money helping someone else (esp. if it doesn't also benefit them).

Interesting to see that exact sentiment play out here in the comments!

So funny how I feel just the exact opposite. I see a lot of people in America, especially today, as being narcisstic self centered greedy and needy who are only concerned with their own selfish wants and needs. I see rudeness and utter contempt for other people in America whether it be road rage or at the mall with fights over material crap. Me me me I want this I want strange how two people can see the same world so differently. My parents raised me to help others and to give of myself to help others.....but that doesn't mean give them everything and don't expect decency and gratitude in return....and hopefully they will pass it forwards.....I want free college I want free health care I want cheap gas I want a smartphone and on and on and on and naseum....and somehow when you say no or maybe ask someone to put the effort in you are made out to be a bad guy!!! Not sure I understand this way of thinking. PS.....state schools an community colleges are already affordable....but people want the "living expenses" too!!! What planet am I on??? Next time I see a U Albany kid puking their brains out after drinking all night and smoking pot I'll gently ask them if they need some pocket money for their school expenses!!! PLEASE

And PS the government already has the money to make these schools "free"......just got to rearrange priorities......

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