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Free-tuition plan is laudable, but too hazy to pass

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, joined by Sen. Bernie

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, joined by Sen. Bernie Sanders, pitched a proposal for additional state tuition assistance during an event at LaGuardia Community College in Queens on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. The plan would help pay the cost of SUNY or CUNY tuition for low- and middle-income New Yorkers. Credit: Charles Eckert

For more than a century, the City University of New York offered its own version of the brass ring: Access to a free college education. It was an incredible gift, providing generations with a higher education they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. But 40 years ago, as New York City hit a fiscal crisis, the free ride stopped.

Now, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is reaching for that brass ring anew, with his proposal to revive free tuition for CUNY students and expand it to the State University of New York. Providing a terrific college education to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it is laudable. Student debt too often prevents our college grads from buying homes, raising families or staying on Long Island. Alleviating that burden could produce economic benefits regionwide. But Cuomo’s lofty proposal lacks detail, leaving questions and topics to debate. It will be up to the legislature to get answers.

— Eligibility: Cuomo’s plan would apply to students whose families earn a taxable income of up to $125,000. It would fill gaps in the state’s widely used Tuition Assistance Program. TAP currently provides aid to 170,000 students and has an $80,000 income cap; Cuomo’s plan would cover full tuition — $6,470 a year for four years of SUNY — for all of them, plus about 40,000 more. While the higher income cap would benefit Long Islanders, it is arbitrary. Are there other ways, like a sliding scale, to establish eligibility and better use state dollars? Are there superior mechanisms, like a tax credit, to make the program work?

— Cost: The biggest unknown is how Cuomo would pay for the program. And is the $163 million estimated price tag close to the actual cost? Some observers say it could be far higher.

— Resources: This is not an open-enrollment plan; there’s no requirement for schools to accept more students. But the plan expects more students to graduate on time. That could strain resources like faculty, classrooms, labs and materials. The state would have to meet the need. It could be a boon to schools with low enrollment. But for those at capacity, the quality of education would be at stake.

— Value: Even with free tuition, students have to be committed to an education funded by taxpayers. Cuomo’s deal would cover full-time students, and pay for four years, incentivizing on-time graduation. And the free ride wouldn’t extend to room, board, books or fees. Whether those factors would be enough skin in the game remains to be seen.

— Future funding: Even as they discuss free tuition, state officials should approve a new five-year plan for predictable tuition increases. Complicating matters, any increase would add to this program’s cost.

— First things first: Free tuition won’t matter if the state’s K-12 education needs aren’t addressed. Students have to be properly prepared for college, and there are only so many education dollars taxpayers can support. That concern must not get lost in the tuition cacophony.

Cuomo has pushed forward a critical conversation. Now, he and legislators have to make it work. The quality and strength of New York’s higher education system depend on the state supplying it with the necessary resources. No brass ring is reachable without them.

— The editorial board


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