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A promising move about college costs

Students walk across the campus of UCLA in

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

On its face, the news that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the White House are talking about a program that would pay for two free years of community college is great news.

Years of labor market data indicate that a college education is increasingly necessary to earn a family-sustaining wage. It's also clear that financial aid does not always make college affordable for all families.

Costs have soared, even at public schools, and national figures show that high school graduates are less likely to enroll in coursework if they feel college costs would be difficult for their families.

New Yorkers recognize the role college plays in upward mobility, and the challenges of its high costs, according to polling by the Community Service Society of New York. In fact, they say making college affordable -- outside of increasing the minimum wage -- is the policy most likely to help them get ahead. Low-, moderate- and high-income New Yorkers, in equal measure, cite the costs of tuition as the biggest barrier to entering and finishing college.

And perhaps most strikingly, 70 percent of them strongly believe that we should expand the 20th century commitment to a free public education that encompasses high school to a 21st century model that includes free college.

Research underscores that investing in college for disadvantaged students ends up paying for itself.

A cost-benefit analysis by the Community Service Society found that higher tax revenues that come from increased employment of and earnings by college graduates, not to mention the decreases in public expenditures on things such as food assistance and incarceration, more than made up for the cost of covering tuition and on-campus supports.

The Community Service Society supports Cuomo's approach. But as my colleague Ron Deutsch of the Fiscal Policy Institute points out, the details will be crucial to determine whether the policy would work. And while we do not have all the answers yet, we know some of the factors that should be part of the discussions.

Focus. The initial language about the plan talked about free community college. Consider whether it makes sense to zero in solely on two-year versus four-year colleges. Some national policy discussions have included a "first two years free" plan, eliminating the cost of public university for the first two years, so as not to disincentivize students who want to aim for four-year schools.

Awareness. Ensure that supports are in place so students and the public realize the benefits of this investment -- that means high graduation rates. Current community college statistics are abysmal, but rigorously evaluated programs, like CUNY's Accelerated Study in Associated Programs model, have been shown to boost graduation rates. These should be a part of any plan, as well as monitoring GPA to keep students on track.

Cost. In some cases, non-tuition expenses associated with college dwarf the cost of tuition. The state should consider a need-based program that goes beyond tuition to cover the living costs of low-income students, through a combination of grants, work-study, and subsidized loans.

Quality. The capacity of CUNY and SUNY schools needs to be understood. Many are packed and operate on tight budgets. The education awaiting students must be worthy of the investment.

New York State is right to start figuring out how to make it work because real chances of increasing upward mobility depend on it.

David R. Jones is president and chief executive of the Community Service Society of New York, an advocacy organization for the working poor.