How New York's Free College Plan Neglects Low-Income Students

Critics say this won't change much for those who need help the most.

Tuition has become so expensive that going to college is a financial strain for nearly everyone who isn’t megawealthy. And although New York’s pioneering program to cover tuition costs at both two-year and four-year colleges will offer relief to the middle class, critics are disappointed that it won’t lighten the burden on many of the state’s most in-need students.

The Excelsior Scholarship program, which New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed into law Wednesday, ensures New Yorkers free tuition at the state’s public colleges if their families earn less than $125,000 annually. It will be phased in over the next three years, beginning this fall for families that make up to $100,000.

It’s a “last-dollar” program, meaning it’ll only cover what federal Pell Grants or other public aid won’t. Many students receive federal or state grants; nationwide, 36 percent of undergraduate students received some amount in Pell Grants in the 2014-15 school year, according to the College Board. Of those students, 27 percent received the maximum grant of $5,730 for the year.

And therein lies the biggest issue, according to social policy experts.

“Last-dollar free-college proposals such as the Excelsior Scholarship don’t address the college affordability inequities at play in our country,” Mamie Voight, the Institute for Higher Education Policy’s vice president of policy research, wrote in an email to The Huffington Post.

“For a low-income student who opts to attend a lower-priced school, such as a community college, a Pell Grant may already cover tuition costs,” she said. “Under the last-dollar model, no additional resources are given to that student. Instead, last-dollar proposals divert resources to higher-income students who may already be able to afford college, leaving low-income students struggling to pay other education-related expenses.”

A student exits a building on the campus of Hunter College of The City University of New York on April 10.
A student exits a building on the campus of Hunter College of The City University of New York on April 10.
Drew Angerer via Getty Images

It’s not just community college students who won’t benefit, according to Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute think tank who wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post when Cuomo first introduced the plan in January.

He used the State University of New York in Albany, a four-year college where tuition is $6,470 per year, as an example.

“SUNY Albany students from families making less than $30,000 receive more than $11,000 in grant aid, mostly from Pell and a state-specific program,” Chingos wrote. “As a result, tuition is already free for them and they receive no additional benefits under Cuomo’s plan, despite the fact that they still have to come up with more than $10,000 to cover non-tuition costs such as rent and food.”

SUNY schools have some of the lowest college pricetags in the country, but the university estimates that a student can expect to pay nearly $25,000 a year once rent, food, textbooks, transportation, personal expenses and other student fees are accounted for.

Conversely, the free tuition plans touted on the campaign trail by 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and outlined by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the College for All Act are both “first-dollar” plans. That means they would cover all of qualifying students’ tuition and allow young people to apply other grants to non-tuition costs.

To Cuomo’s credit, he has always been clear that the Excelsior Scholarship is designed to help middle-class families too wealthy to qualify for federal and state aid but not wealthy enough to afford the cost of college. College tuition ― for all types of schools, including public and private ― increased 12-fold between 1978 and 2012, while wages stagnated.

“We should make college affordable, college should be accessible, college should be free for middle-class families in this nation,” Cuomo said at Wednesday’s signing. “So every middle-class family can go to college.”

“Last-dollar free-college proposals such as the Excelsior Scholarship don’t address the college affordability inequities at play in our country.”

- Mamie Voight

The “last-dollar” structure isn’t the only element of New York’s plan that may exclude lower-income students, many of whom need to hold down jobs during the school year. To qualify for a tuition-free education, students must attend school full-time and complete their degree within four years. More than 90 percent of current students at the state’s community colleges and 60 percent at four-year colleges don’t fit that bill, The New York Times noted.

That policy is aimed at helping students graduate, said Tom Sugar, president of the nonprofit Complete College America.

“The program’s 30-credit requirement ― which has been criticized by some ― is a research-proven strategy to raise GPAs, increase retention rates and ultimately boost college completion in the state,” he said in a statement to HuffPost.

Sixty percent of students enrolled full-time in four-year colleges graduate within eight years, according to Sugar’s organization. Just over 24 percent of part-time students finish school in that same amount of time. Similarly, the nonprofit found that less than half as many part-time students graduate from two-year programs within four years as do full-time students.

Another criticism levied at the Excelsior Scholarship addresses all students. A late addition to the plan stipulates that students who accept the scholarship must live and work in New York after graduation for as many years as they received the funds. If they don’t, their once-covered tuition will be converted to student loans they must repay.

“Students may not understand what they are getting into when they accept the money,” Tom Hilliard, a senior researcher at the Center for an Urban Future, wrote. “And, to be clear, they are not simply agreeing to live in New York ... after graduation. They are also agreeing to work in New York. So a graduate who lives in Chatham and four years later gets a summer job in Pittsfield could suddenly face a student loan burden of up to $27,500.”

Cuomo justified this requirement on Monday during a call with reporters, explaining that students who take advantage of this opportunity should remain an asset to the state.

“Why should New Yorkers pay for your college education, and then you pick up and move to California?” he asked.

But such a clause should come with “workforce alignment strategies that ensure graduates have ample opportunities to pursue meaningful employment,” Voight said. “Policymakers must guard against restrictions that stifle mobility, as well as career and economic advancement, and hold low-income students back from being as successful and nimble in the workforce as they could be.”

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