In January, when Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his proposal for a tuition waiver plan for students from low- and moderate-income families for CUNY and SUNY, he did so with Senator Bernie Sanders at his side. The joint appearance with Sanders created the impression that the usually centrist governor had embarked on a new progressive path, adopting the free college idea that Sanders had featured in his 2016 presidential campaign.
Yet, when the governor signed the bill for the plan in April, calling it the “first-in-nation, tuition-free college for the middle class,” he did so next to Sanders’s more centrist competitor and eventual victor in the Democratic primary, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Some observers read this as a tempering of the original plan, or at the very least an indication that the Cuomo tuition plan was less ambitious and progressive than many first thought.
As details of the plan emerge, it looks like the skeptics may be right.
Most prominently, many economic justice activists have pointed out that the tuition plan covers far fewer people than originally anticipated.
Tom Hilliard of the Center for an Urban Future wrote in a statement, “The bill has...shortcomings. Its requirement of 15 credit hours per semester, every semester, is unrealistic for many students. It provides no benefits for low-income students whose tuition is paid by TAP and Pell, but who struggle to pay living expenses. There are no companion benefits to improve student completion rates at public colleges where the odds of dropping out are higher than the odds of graduating. But these are omissions that could be fixed in subsequent years.”
CUNY advocates also note that the scholarship won’t cover other basic costs that are burdensome for working-class students, such as the cost of books and living expenses. As The New York Times reported, there are other requirements that could prevent many students from taking part in the scholarship program. The paper reported, “To qualify, students must attend school full time and be on track to graduate within two or four years, depending on the degree they are seeking. But low-income students often must interrupt their studies to work. At the state’s community colleges, more than 90 percent of students would not qualify for free tuition based on those requirements. Even at its four-year colleges, 60 percent would be ineligible.”
In fact, The New York Times editorial board voiced skepticism about the plan, saying, “This was not the product of extensive hearings or long study; there was no sense that it emerged because public-policy or higher-education experts – never mind students! – had told the governor, let’s examine what is keeping young New Yorkers out of college, and figure out how to get them in and keep them there.”
The Times editorial noted that while the proposal in January claimed that nearly a million families could qualify, one estimate put that number closer to 32,000 students.
Kevin Stump, the northeast director of the Young Invincibles, which along with the PSC is a part of the CUNY Rising Alliance, said in an article for the Gotham Gazette that the final budget agreement did offer some relief for part-time students: “The budget also established a Part-Time Scholarship (PTS) that is available to community college students based on financial need who take more than six credits but less than 12 credits a semester. Students who qualify may receive an award up to $1,500 for up to four consecutive semesters only, which would likely leave them without any aid to finish the second half of their degree.”
Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent, Jordan Weissmann, said the plan “may be more helpful to middle-class than poorer families, who already tend to pay very little in tuition. That’s because it’s a so-called last dollar program – New York will cover the cost of tuition, but only after subtracting the value of other grants and scholarships students receive.”
He continued, “This somewhat undermines one of the big rationales behind making college tuition-free in the first place. A lot of progressives hope that by zeroing out tuition, low-income students would be able to use their other scholarship and grant money to cover living expenses.”
Among the issues critics are finding is a feature not included in Cuomo’s original proposal, but rather similar to a competing SUNY/CUNY affordability plan introduced by Assemblyman James Skoufis. While news reports indicated that the change in the final plan came from Senate Republicans, Skoufis is a Democrat.
The governor’s plan requires that a recipient of the tuition waiver live in New York state for up to four years, or else the waiver becomes a student loan. The idea is that the state of New York’s workforce should reap the benefits of the investment in public higher education affordability, and not subsidize brain drain.
This policy might be well intentioned, and certainly statistics show that most CUNY graduates don’t leave the state upon graduation, but the problems with the requirement are many.
Suppose you are from a family earning a total of $90,000 per year in New York City, and you enroll at City Tech on the scholarship, specializing in computer science. It turns out you’re a whiz, and upon graduation you’re offered extremely exciting positions out of state that come with livable salaries and benefits in parts of the country where buying a home is much easier than in New York City, where housing prices have skyrocketed. Besides, you’re just not getting that many good computer job offers from employers in the state. You don’t come from a rich family, so you don’t have family money to fall back on.
What are you to do in this case? Take the job that provides you a real professional path and be forced into debt, or do you stay restrained in a smaller job market with higher living costs?
The answer isn’t easy, and this one example shows just how troubling this provision is, since now it makes financial planning and career building that much more difficult if someone at the beginning of college doesn’t know whether they’ll be in debt in a few years or not.
“Forcing college graduates to live and work in New York is wrong. A grant should be a grant, not a loan with an escape clause,” Hilliard said. “The provision is also dangerous. Students may not understand what they are getting into when they accept the money.”
He noted that this requirement could place students in a precarious situation. He said that an out-of-state move could mean that a student would “suddenly face a student loan burden of up to $27,500.”
The loan-conversion requirement also puts other kinds of financial handcuffs on potential graduates. What if a graduate must move out of state to take care of a sick relative? And such a restraint would cut off the potential of living abroad, such as participating in the Peace Corps or pursuing a Fulbright scholarship, or simply taking jobs teaching or working overseas. All of these things are supposed to be opportunities for Americans to have broad experiences early in life, but they would be denied to New Yorkers who come from low- or moderate-income households.
The residency requirement of the Cuomo scholarship plan underscores the problem with treating higher education simply as a utilitarian, Fordist, workforce-training program, rather than as a public service for civil society.
“Education is not only about ‘training the workforce,’” LaGuardia Community College PSC Chapter Chair Sigmund Shen told Clarion in an email. “If we’re going to say now that the primary goal of college is job training, then we should at least be consistent and demand that students be paid as they would for any other job training. But it would be better to recognize the implicit value of education to democracy, civilization and the planet, regardless of who is currently hiring or for what.”
The loan-conversion plan is only one issue related to the scholarship plan the governor has put forth that critics have cited. As student and faculty advocates have noted, the program will offer the greatest help to full-time students from household incomes between $80,000 and $100,000. The program offers nothing for students who go to college part time because they have to work, and the program also cuts out undocumented students.
Even with this scholarship plan signed into law, the PSC, along with the CUNY Rising Alliance, has recommitted to continued lobbying and demanding more affordability for public higher education, which would require full funding from the state. In particular, PSC said it would continue working with Inez Barron, chair of the City Council’s higher education committee, who has formed a task force to reintroduce the possibility of making CUNY free.
The union has maintained the position that while affordability is a necessary goal for CUNY, affordability is meaningless without the increased investment that would enable both current and future students to take the courses they need.
“Without increased public investment in CUNY, Excelsior cannot achieve its full potential,” PSC President Barbara Bowen said in a statement. “Excelsior requires timely progress to graduation, but the enacted state budget for FY18 failed to provide the resources necessary to enable students to graduate on time. Nearly half of current CUNY undergraduates report not being able to take a course they need for their major. Without adequate state funding, CUNY cannot support the smaller classes, expanded faculty mentorship, improved advisement and increased support services that are proven to improve graduation rates.”