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Lawmakers criticize Gov. Cuomo’s ‘free tuition’ plan

ALBANY — Lawmakers peppered the Cuomo administration and State University of New York officials with questions about the governor’s “free tuition” plan Tuesday, asking about the math behind the proposal and the lack of specific details in some areas.

They didn’t always get answers.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, has proposed creating a pathway to free tuition for students from families earning less than $125,000 annually as part of his 2017-18 budget plan. It would apply to SUNY and City University of New York students, but not those attending private colleges. Rank-and-file lawmakers, reviewing the initiative for the first time, voiced skepticism about the cost estimates, among other things.

State Sen. Cathy Young (R-Olean) said during the daylong hearing that the numbers weren’t “adding up very well.” Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) urged officials to “give us numbers very, very quickly,” referring to per-pupil cost estimates.

Assemb. Chad Lupinacci (R-Huntington) criticized the idea of setting a uniform income-eligibility cap rather than one based on regional costs of living. Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) said there was a lack of clarity about “who’s eligible, what they’re eligible for” and under what circumstances.

Some asked questions about residency requirements and impacts on disabled students.

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher touted the proposal, but had to defer to the Cuomo administration, which drafted the initiative, on queries about costs, eligibility and disabled students.

Eventually, the administration dispatched Jim Malatras, Cuomo’s director of state operations, to join the hearing late in the day to field some of the questions.

Malatras said the overall estimated cost of the college-aid expansion, $163 million annually, was based on an estimated 10 percent enrollment increase based on similar community-college aid programs in other states. Some lawmakers questioned whether the cost estimate was low.

Malatras also acknowledged the program would place stricter graduation requirements on students participating in the new program compared to Tuition Assistance Program (TAP is limited to families earning $80,000 or less annually). It would require students to complete 15 hours of credits per semester and graduate in four years (TAP mandates 12 hours; in some cases students can get aid for five years).

“Are we encouraging behavior? Yes,” Malatras told legislators. “Part of this is to increase the graduation rate because improving graduation rates helps everybody,” citing the issue of student debt.

Malatras fought back against the characterization that these students are being “penalized” compared to TAP recipients.

“We are not penalizing them,” Malatras said. “This is aid they aren’t getting now.”

The governor and legislators are supposed to agree to a budget by April 1, the start of New York’s fiscal year.

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