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SUNY chancellor endorses gov’s tuition plan, addresses criticisms

State University of New York Chancellor Nancy L.

State University of New York Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher watches a video before delivering the State of the University address on Jan. 11, 2016, in Albany. Photo Credit: AP / Mike Groll

State University of New York Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher on Thursday endorsed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s “Excelsior Scholarship,” addressing criticism of the tuition-aid plan and calling it “an immense opportunity in our state’s history.”

In a lengthy statement, Zimpher applauded the program’s requirement of full-time enrollment while dispelling popular speculation that the SUNY campuses would not be able to handle a subsequent rise in enrollment.

“Are we reaching too high, too fast? I don’t think so, and neither do the presidents of the SUNY colleges and universities who stand ready to implement Excelsior in its final form,” Zimpher wrote.

Cuomo first announced his Excelsior Scholarship plan as a pathway to free college tuition on Jan. 3 at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at his side. The plan he pitched would provide a supplemental tuition payment to eligible students from households earning an adjusted gross income of less than $125,000 by 2019.

Students would have to attend a two-year or four-year SUNY or City University of New York school, take 15 course credits and maintain passing grades to get the benefit.

The plan would pay for the “last dollar” of those students’ tuition, after all other forms of financial aid were exhausted, including other scholarships and grants. SUNY’s resident tuition is $6,470 at its four-year colleges and $4,350 at its two-year community colleges.

The plan would cost $163 million per year.

Zimpher, who has been chancellor of the 64-campus public university system since 2009, announced last May that she would step down on June 30 of this year.

She acknowledged the Excelsior Scholarship, as proposed, excludes part-time students who are unable to attend college full-time because of home or work commitments. But she said there was overwhelming evidence that students who attend full-time are more likely to graduate.

The governor’s office has projected the aid plan would bring a 10 percent increase in enrollment and estimates about 940,000 families statewide would be eligible for the scholarship.

Zimpher said the community colleges have more capacity to handle any rise in enrollment.

Asked about Zimpher’s statement, officials at Long Island’s SUNY campuses said Thursday they support the plan, although it remains unclear how many students might be eligible.

Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley said the program “is a good deal for family pocketbooks, and an affirmative recognition of the academic excellence in New York public higher education.”

He said the predictive tuition plan proposed in the executive budget — which would allow the SUNY campuses to raise tuition by $250 annually — is critical to maintaining quality while increasing access.

“The tandem tuition component proposed by Governor Cuomo is particularly important for schools like Stony Brook University, whose academic and research excellence, acknowledged by membership in the AAU [Association of American Universities], costs more to provide, and is critical for both the quality and reputation of higher education in New York,” Stanley said.

At Farmingdale State College, financial aid officials estimate that some 4,000 of its 8,600 students are from families making less than $125,000. About half of those students already receive some form of federal and/or state financial aid.

“We welcome the governor’s focus on college affordability,” President John S. Nader said. “For working families, few issues are more important.”

SUNY Old Westbury spokesman Michael Kinane said the school already is fielding questions about the Excelsior Scholarship and seeing more applications now than at this time last year. In fall 2016, the college had 4,465 enrolled students.

“There’s likely some growth we can achieve, but Excelsior Scholarship coupled with some of the other things SUNY has asked for in the budget would be the real homerun,” Kinane said.

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