Tuition-free College in New York

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo started 2017 with plans to roll out a Bernie Sanders’ inspired plan for lower and middle income families: tuition-free college in New York State. With the outspoken 2016 Democrat presidential nominee at his side, Cuomo said, “A college education is not a luxury – it is an absolute necessity for any chance at economic mobility, and with these first-in-the-nation Excelsior Scholarships, we’re providing the opportunity for New Yorkers to succeed, no matter what zip code they come from and without the anchor of student debt weighing them down.” While the proposal has already gained widespread support, it is not without its critics, and surprisingly, some of these critics include generally left-leaning postsecondary educators.

Qualifying for Tuition-Free College in New York

screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-11-53-12-amSpecifically, under Cuomo’s plan, all SUNY and CUNY colleges will become tuition-free for New York families that gross under $125,000 annually (yes, that’s your reported before not after taxes income). The announcement is expected to impact more than 940,000 families and individuals across the state. From Governor’s perspective, the decision is good news for New Yorkers and for the state. “New York is making a major investment in our greatest asset – our people – and supporting the dreams and ambitions of those who want a better life and are willing to work hard for it,” he explained, adding, “I am honored to have the support of Senator Sanders, who led the way on making college affordability a right, and I know that together we can make this a reality with New York leading the way once again.”

Naturally, Sanders applauded the tuition-free college in New York proposal: “We need to make certain that every New Yorker, every Vermonter and every American gets all the education they need regardless of family income. In other words, we must make public colleges and universities tuition free for the middle class and working families of our country.” And for Sanders’ followers, the proposed plan in New York may also be a beacon of hope. Despite the incoming Republican administration, New York’s move to roll in tuition-free public education suggests that moving forward, Sanders’ call for accessible higher education may still be enacted on a state-by-state basis.

Why Tuition-free College in New York May be Misguided

nfmOne may wonder what could possibly be wrong with tuition-free college, but in fact, there are some legitimate critiques. First, in new York State, faculty, specifically, part-time faculty, continue to make far below the state’s living wage. Many CUNY and SUNY part-time faculty members make only about $3000 per course. Even teaching 10 courses per year, which is nearly double the average faculty baseload, part-time faculty would still make only $30,000, which in most areas of New York State is far too little to cover one’s basic expenses and less than half the required living wage for a family. It is unclear how the state’s proposed $163 million program will impact faculty salaries, but there is widespread concern that the move will by no means make it any easier to address the ongoing part-time faculty wage crisis.  Notably, the New Faculty Majority, a national organization that represents part-time faculty, responded to Governor Cuomo’s announcement by tweeting, “Not until you pay the majority of your faculty a living wage.”

A second concern with the tuition-free college in New York proposal regards the currency of public college and university degrees, especially in New York State. While it is true that some states, such as California and Michigan, are home to top-ranked state universities, in other states, public universities continue to lag behind private institutions in reputation. Like it or not, a degree from a SUNY or CUNY is not as valued as a degree from Columbia, NYU or one of the state’s elite liberal arts colleges, such as Vassar or Bard. The question remains, will this ever change? If not, to what extent is the decision to make public schools free for lower and middle class students simply a way to keep these students out of the elite networks built up around the state’s private institutions?

Finally, some critics have expressed concerns about the actual terms of Governor’s Cuomo’s tuition-free college in New York plan. First, some middle income families in New York City worry that the threshold is too low. A family with two parents making under $70,000 annually may still struggle due to the high cost of living in New York City, but they would not be eligible for free tuition under the state’s proposed education plan. In addition, some students worry that under the plan, they will need to maintain full-time enrollment throughout their degree, but many college students, especially in New York City, work to support themselves and/or their families while attending college. “I like the idea,” Valeria Diaz said, “But I work two jobs in two different stores and take my classes mostly in the morning. If I have to take a full course load, I don’t know how I’m going to help my mom and aunt pay the rent. My mom takes care of my grandmother, so I’m not just working to buy clothes. I really need to be making real money and contributing to the rent and other things at home. I don’t think those guys really get it.”

While not a perfect solution, if passed, there is no doubt that Cuomo’s plan will at the very least open up college opportunities for lower-income and middle-income New Yorkers and there is also hope that his proposal will have a snow ball effect nationwide. For now, however, everyone is waiting to see whether New York’s attempt to realize Sanders’ vision will in fact one day lead at Berkeley and other top-ranked but underfunded UC campuses too.

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