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Andrew Cuomo’s free tuition plan raises more questions than it answers

Students walk across the campus of UCLA in

Students walk across the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles on April 23, 2012. Credit: Getty Images / Kevork Djansezian

New York State took the right step by encouraging more of its residents to attain higher education, but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers will need to address a lot of questions in the years ahead.

Starting next fall, the newly created Excelsior Scholarship will make tuition free for lower- and middle-class students attending a public college or university in the state. In its first year, the scholarship is available to students from families making less than $100,000 per year and who have already exhausted all other financial aid options.

Helping to reduce college expenses is a good step, but it leads to the first question — what will be done about the other, significant costs of attending college?

Tuition is just a fraction of the cost of being on campus. Using Stony Brook’s own estimates, the average student spends nearly $70,000 over four years on housing, books, and average transportation costs alone — and that is consistent for all SUNY schools.

Cuomo and state lawmakers will need to address this part of college affordability sooner than later to make a meaningful difference for the 940,000 families Cuomo says the Excelsior Scholarship would help. Without more support, the program would significantly cut down cost for students who live at home and commute to campus.

Even if you ignore that issue, how would the state universities be able to pick up additional applicants? And if they don’t, won’t this make state schools more selective?

The scholarship is designed to encourage more students to apply to college; does New York have the capacity for that? Well, over an eight-year period from 2008-2015, SUNY school’s enrollment rates were pretty consistent. Stony Brook, for example, has enrolled around 2,700 people consistently for the past 10 years. So if the university remained constant at enrolling a certain number of students, it will either be forced to become more selective, or start enrolling more students? That raises a whole slew of other issues.

As it stands, Stony Brook has had trouble meeting the demand of on-campus housing, and that has led to two new dorm halls to accommodate their students.

Despite those two unanswered major questions, Cuomo’s plan is still the right move. Giving potential students this help is good for the state. But New York and the country still has to address the issues of whether college degrees have become a basic necessity for getting a job, and whether college should be totally free (not just tuition-free).

Earlier this decade, Burning Glass, a labor market research group, found that employers were asking for bachelor’s degrees at an increased rate. In 2012, the group found that out of 65,000 executive assistant job postings studied, nearly 65 percent requested candidates with a bachelor’s degrees. However, only 19 percent of those working as executive assistants had completed a college education, highlighting a major shift in job requirements.

In 2015, 32.5 percent of those over age 25 had at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2020, 65 percent of all job postings will require a bachelor’s degree, according to estimates by Georgetown University researchers.

With or without New York’s tuition program, historical trends suggest that college graduation rates jump on average of 10 percent every 20 years. At some point, shouldn’t we recognize that basic higher education is a necessity and not a distinguishing characteristic? So, at what point do we make college completely free for all?

None of these questions are easily answered, and even more questions will be asked along the way because Cuomo is right, this bill is the first of its kind for the country. Alleviating college financial strain is the right step, but Cuomo and his team better get ready to start answering questions as they arise.

Jager Robinson is an intern with Newsday Opinion.


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