Gotham Gazette Sat, 21 Jul 2018 19:45:40 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) The Excelsior Scholarship’s Academic Requirements Are Far Too High excelsior scholarship academic

Gov. Cuomo announcing Excelsior (Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

In January 2014, Kellyn C. was 49 and had been recently laid off from a human resources position. “You need a college degree to remain competitive,” she said. She enrolled as a first-time freshman at CUNY Medgar Evers College (MEC) in Brooklyn. Three and a half years later, she reports, “I’m doing well. I’m applying myself and forging ahead.” She has 96 credits, a GPA above 3.0, and is on track to graduate in December 2017 or January 2018—all significant accomplishments at MEC, a comprehensive institution offering both associate and bachelor’s degrees.  

The Excelsior Scholarship, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new free college tuition program, was of immediate interest to Kellyn given her upcoming $3,265 tuition bill for Fall 2017 and an income that is just above the thresholds to qualify for federal Pell grants or New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).  “I’m trying to pursue my degree and there should be something for me,” she said. Yet despite being a highly capable student, Kellyn will not be eligible for Excelsior because of the scholarship’s credit accumulation requirements, which are set at elite levels that she just misses.   

Governor Cuomo announced the Excelsior Scholarship with much fanfare in January 2017 at LaGuardia Community College. Bernie Sanders, standing at his side, touted it as “a revolutionary idea for higher education.” When the bill was signed into law, Cuomo returned to LaGuardia with Hillary Clinton heralding the program as a “beacon of hope” to New Yorkers.    

The Scholarship makes CUNY and SUNY tuition-free for students with adjusted gross family incomes of less than $100,000, with the maximum income increasing to $110,000 in 2018 and to $125,000 in 2019.  The program is a last-dollar scholarship, which means that the award fills tuition gaps after other federal and state aid have been drawn down. Excelsior offers no additional support to low-income students who already receive enough Pell and TAP aid to cover tuition and fees but often struggle with transportation, rent, and books. Cuomo’s administration has acknowledged as much, describing Excelsior at public events and in television commercials as for “middle-class families.”

Kellyn, while financially eligible for Excelsior with an adjusted gross income of well below the $100,000 threshold, is not academically eligible for the scholarship because she doesn’t meet the requirement of having earned 30 or more credits per year—or 90 or more credits total—by January 2017, the end of her third year in college, even though she’s been picking up credits this summer so that she can graduate in the winter, four years from when she started. “I don’t know where they come up with the 90 credits,” she said, having earned a few credits short of the 90 in her first three years. She is rightfully proud that she’s on track to graduate in four years. If she had been eligible for Excelsior—and she’s still planning to petition for eligibility—getting it “would mean the world to me,” she said.   

Of New York State’s 605,000 CUNY and SUNY students, SUNY estimates that only 31,300 students will be eligible for Excelsior, representing 5.2% of all CUNY and SUNY students. The application deadline is Friday, July 21, and if more students apply and are eligible than funds are available in the $87 million earmark, a lottery will be conducted to award the scholarship.  

A key reason for the limited projected eligibility estimate is that few CUNY and SUNY students meet the academic criteria of completing 30 credits a year. The percentages of full-time students at three CUNY colleges—Brooklyn College, City College of New York, and York College—who earned 30 or more credits during the 2014-2015 academic year are 31.6% at Brooklyn, 27.4% at CCNY, and 22.8%. at York. The percentages of students meeting the 30 or more credits threshold at CUNY’s community colleges are lower. At Bronx Community College, 11.5% of students met the threshold, and at LaGuardia, 20.2% of students, to cite just two.

At LaGuardia, where Governor Cuomo twice announced the Excelsior Scholarship, only 195 of the 2,480 students who started as full-time students in Fall 2013 graduated within two years and would have met the academic requirements to receive Excelsior during a junior year at another CUNY or SUNY institution. As students get to the sophomore, junior, and senior years and fall off meeting Excelsior’s credit accumulation requirements, Excelsior will become at many campuses an honors scholarship for the academically elite students.

To the extent that there will be students benefitting from Excelsior, they are likely to disproportionately be ones who attend the institutions with the highest four-year graduation rates, like SUNY Binghamton (66.1%) and SUNY Albany (53.0%), rather than ones who attend the institutions with the lowest rates and the rates that arguably most need public policies to support their advancement.  

The regulations adopted by New York State’s Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC) in late May outline a number of exceptions to the credit accumulation requirements, allowing interruptions of study “due to circumstances as determined by the corporation, including but not limited to, death of a family member, medical leave, military service, service in the Peace Corps or parental leave.” The “including but not limited to” phrasing allows HESC and colleges to account for unusual circumstances but does not explicitly create exceptions for the primary reasons that students fall behind or take semesters off: academic under-preparation for college-level work; work and life circumstances; and institutional factors, like poor advising, limited course offerings, and subpar faculty.   

The regulations further state that students who fall off track and become ineligible for future Excelsior awards will owe one semester of their Excelsior Scholarships back to their colleges. The HESC website reads: “If you fail to complete 30 credits over a 365-day period, the Excelsior Scholarship will cover your first term; however, you will be responsible for the tuition liability for your second term.”

The financial reality of having to pay for a prior completed semester previously thought to have been free and having to pay for future semesters after having gone to college tuition-free may influence initial Excelsior beneficiaries to dropout. Students who miss the credit accumulation cutoffs may start seeing themselves as not made out for college. Falling off the Excelsior cliff is likely to be financially and emotionally devastating to the college success of a significant number of initial Excelsior recipients.

Excelsior’s payback requirement is the most harmful aspect of the program, and it is what is most wrong with the program. The students who self-finance Excelsior repayments and future tuition charges in a valiant effort to earn degrees may find themselves working too many hours to meet their financial obligations to be academically successful.  

As Excelsior plays itself out, the scholarship is likely to impact four-year graduation rates positively as students who can stay on track will be more motivated to cross the finish line in four years. Achieving higher four-year graduation rates, however, may be at the cost of decreases rather than increases in the retention of students from freshman to sophomore year, as students who lose Excelsior eligibility drop out. This is not what anyone intended of the revolutionary initiative proclaimed by Senator Sanders.  Chano LaBoy, a Senior Trainer and College Access Counselor at the Options program at Goddard Riverside Community Center in New York City, said about Excelsior’s credit accumulation terms, “I’m a little wary as to how it’s going to play out with students who come up short on credits. I’m anxious.”  

To address the problems of Excelsior, the Governor and Legislature should eliminate the payback requirement and adjust the credit accumulation requirement to 25 credits per year, acknowledging that a four-year graduation timeline and yearly completion of 30 credits is way too ambitious at many SUNY and CUNY colleges. The requirement that recipients live and work in New York State for the same number of years that they received the scholarship also should be eliminated, as many critics have argued.  

In announcing Excelsior, Governor Cuomo got the big idea right. “Today, college is what high school was—it should always be an option even if you can’t afford it,” he proclaimed, and indeed universal college should be the new universal high school, but until the Governor, the State Legislature, and HESC come together to correct the weaknesses of Excelsior, New York State’s free college program is a bait into a trap for students who attend campuses where students hardly ever earn 30 credits a year.   Righting Excelsior and making free college freer will require more funding so policy changes may take some time, but for now, New York Excelsior Scholarship is a program for freshmen and academically elite students rather than a revolutionary free college program.

Eric Neutuch is a new doctoral student at Northeastern University and an education evaluation consultant.

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The Excelsior Scholarship’s Academic Requirements Are Far Too High Thu, 20 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Experts Eye 'College Success' for City Students CUNY graduation Macaulay

(2017 Macaulay Honors College commencement, via CUNY Newswire)

Professors, researchers, and administrators gathered Monday morning to discuss issues related to higher education in New York, especially how to ensure that more New Yorkers are college-ready and successful once they enter higher education. The symposium, held at The Greene Space and titled “Moving the Needle on College Success in NYC,” was hosted by the Center for an Urban Future (CUF), a think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity and growing the economy.

After a year of research, CUF is set to release a report in the next few weeks that will describe the key challenges and obstacles that prevent students from graduating college in a timely manner or cause them to drop out of their programs altogether. “Before we close the book on our own research, we really wanted to have this conversation and bring up some of the most amazing and thoughtful people on this issue,” said Jonathan Bowles, CUF executive director.

Fewer than a quarter of the students that are in two-year associate’s programs at the City University of New York (CUNY) get their degree within three years, and affordability and accessibility continue to be problems for many young people seeking a college education.

Douglas Bauer, the executive director of the Clark Foundation, an event sponsor and organization that focuses on helping people out of poverty by supporting nonprofits in New York City, started off the morning’s discussion by stating in his welcoming remarks, “We’re very blessed in the city to have tremendous resources dedicated to higher education, and indeed, some of the best institutions in the country, if not the world, reside here. So, one would think that access to these institutions would be attainable, and sadly that is not really the case.”

“We think in silos, and we operate in silos. We don’t think like a system,” Bauer added, “and the result is that some well-deserving students from underserved neighborhoods in this great city get assistance but not nearly enough.”

A panel discussion followed, with professors and administrators addressing challenges students face in trying to get their degrees, including having to work part-time, not knowing what resources are available to them, and not understanding how to navigate the “hidden curriculum,” or the knowledge and competencies often passed down to students from their family members who have attended college.

“A community college is much more complex from the point of view of the student than Columbia,” said Thomas Bailey, professor of economics and education at Teachers College, the graduate school of education, health, and psychology at Columbia University. “[Community college students] haven’t been marinated in a college-going culture from the time they were two. Their family hasn’t been to college. They don’t have a lot of information or experience to draw on.”

There was widespread talk of the need to create a college-going culture by exposing students from as early as middle school to higher education campuses and arranging for them to speak with graduates about their experiences. This culture could also include pairing up community college students into cohorts before sending them to four-year colleges as a way of encouraging them to graduate, offering more AP classes and College Now courses, amping up academic rigor, increasing advisement to help students fill out paperwork, expanding CUNY fee waivers, and even getting businesses involved by giving them incentives to employ students after they graduate or to offer more paid internships to current students.

“I think it’s not simply a matter of money because the reality is, there’s never going to be enough money,” said David Gomez, president of Hostos Community College.

Public Advocate Letitia James joined the conversation to give remarks at the CUF event. “We must develop support networks, which is so critically important. The goal cannot simply be get our children into college, and then say goodbye. We know that our children are more likely to succeed with strong networks surrounding them, and I refuse to doom children who unfortunately happen to be born in a certain zip code to failure.”

James expressed concerns about the Excelsior Scholarship, a recently passed program ushered through by Governor Andrew Cuomo, which would make CUNY and SUNY schools tuition-free for students who come from families making an annual income up to $125,000 and meet specific criteria such as taking and completing 30 credits per year. The program will be phased in over three years. “One of the issues with Excelsior is that everything is online, and the digital divide along racial lines is very, very real,” James said.

Others have criticized Excelsior, which Cuomo pegged for middle class families given that the state already had a tuition assistance program for the lowest income individuals seeking college access, for not addressing key costs like books, travel, or lodging.

When Gotham Gazette asked panelists about Excelsior, Judith Lorimer, the director of Goddard Riverside’s Options Center, said, “It’s not going to help lower-income students. It’s not free college. The way it works is it’s an additional scholarship on top of TAP and Pell. So for low-income students who receive enough TAP and Pell to cover tuition, it’s not going to affect them at all. [For] middle incomes--$50,000 to $100,000--there’s potential there, but there are a lot of complications and loops. You have to go to school right away. You have to get your 30 credits a year. You have to stay in New York afterwards, otherwise it converts to a loan. All of that is an incredible complication even for the students that it will benefit.”

Phil Weinberg, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning at the New York City Department of Education, summed up the entire debate in a nutshell when he said, “If you’re going to turn to a young person and say, ‘What problem do you want to solve?’ or ‘What plan do you want to have for yourself?,’ you have to have provided that young person with the academic abilities, and social abilities, to be able to answer that question. In many ways, that’s a privileged question to ask somebody. If the answer is ‘I wanna make sure my family pays its rent this month,’ that really limits the choices that young person has...The easiest way to make this better is something that the nation is not willing to do, which is, make this all free for everybody.”

Experts Eye 'College Success' for City Students Mon, 26 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo’s Excelsior Plan Falls Far Short of Making CUNY Free Again cuomo clinton

(photo above via The Governor's Office) (image below by Becca Glaser)

With the regularity of a ritual, every year the advocates of high-quality public higher education make a pilgrimage to Albany. Every year, for over 40 years, the request has been the same: stop de-funding higher education. And nearly every year, for over 40 years, the Legislature and Governor do the same thing: cut funding and approve tuition hikes. As a result, annual per-student government expenditures in New York’s public higher education system languish at an average of $8,830; while private colleges nationwide spend an average of $23,100.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, a college degree is what a high school diploma used to be. Yet, public and private higher education are increasingly separate and unequal -- and increasingly expensive.

It wasn’t always this way. CUNY was free for New Yorkers from 1847 to 1975, when the institution was majority white. The state imposed tuition through a Wall Street-aligned “Emergency Financial Control Board” in 1976. It was also the first year the university system enrolled a majority students of color.

The steady retreat of government from the provision of higher education as a public good has allowed Wall Street loan sharks to advance. Poor and working-class students have been the casualties, stuck relying on loans or longer and longer hours at low-wage jobs to get themselves through school.

The CUNY administration likes to tout the institution as the “American Dream Machine,” proclaiming in sunny subway ads that “80% graduate debt-free.” They don’t mention a darker truth: over 50% of those who enroll don’t graduate at all, falling prey to a lack of financial aid, the high cost of living in New York City, and the frequent unavailability of classes that are required for graduation (students call this “getting CUNYed”).

Facilities across CUNY are falling apart. And the faculty are increasingly overworked and underpaid -- over half of CUNY’s courses are taught by adjuncts making an average of $3,275 per course. With a full-time teaching load, that would bring you $19,650 per year before taxes, and put you in poverty.

This year in Albany was supposed to be different. On April 7, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that a deal had been reached regarding the state budget, including approval for his Excelsior Scholarship program, which is now being billed as the first tuition-free college plan passed by a state.

Cuomo is selling us a bill of goods.

He says his “Excelsior” plan makes higher education free for “middle class” families. He does not mention that it actually increases tuition by $1,000 over the next five years (pending approval from the Board of Trustees). Cuomo claims that low-income students currently can cover their tuition with existing state and federal aid, but this is not generally true. Decades of funding cuts, tuition hikes, absurdly low income limits and other restrictions on aid mean that thousands of students already struggle to pay tuition and their costs of living. Now, thanks to Cuomo, they may have hundreds of dollars more in tuition to pay.

The Excelsior Scholarship is a smokescreen for this backdoor tuition hike that will fall on many of the neediest students, who do not qualify for the aid that Cuomo touts. To maintain eligibility for the scholarship, students must take 30 credits per year -- an average of five classes per semester in a standard school year, which is more than the minimum for being full-time. This is an impossibility for students who must work to provide for their families or care for children. With this inordinate course load, students must also maintain a certain GPA, to be decided by their college.

Undocumented students remain completely excluded from financial aid.

It gets worse. The Excelsior program will also take from the poorest students to fill the coffers of the state. At current rates of enrollment, the $1,000 tuition hike could bring in over $274 million in additional revenue at CUNY alone, given its 274,000 full-time students. It could bring in an additional $400 million from SUNY’s 400,000 undergraduates.

Yet, the state plans to spend only $163 million on the Excelsior Scholarship, leading to a net revenue increase for the government, in part paid for by those students who can’t qualify for the scholarship because they are not able to take five classes at a time.

tuition flatCuomo’s plan aids middle-income students while turning poor and working class students into a profit center, continuing the 40-year trend of reducing access for the poor to public higher education and shifting the funding burden to students. It also makes no provision for badly-needed investment in the CUNY system: including infrastructure, adjunct pay parity, and support for struggling students.

And there’s one more thing. For those who are able to maintain four years of five classes per semester and meet GPA requirements each semester, Cuomo’s plan will force its recipients to remain in New York for the same number of years that they received the scholarship. If graduates move out of state, they will be charged with debt equivalent to the tuition covered by the Excelsior Scholarship, sending more young people into the jaws of the student loan industry.

We have a better idea.

Higher education is a free public good in dozens of countries across the world, all of which are less wealthy that the United States. It used to be the norm here too. It’s time to bring it back.

The Campaign to Make CUNY Free Again is gathering 30,000 petition signatures to place the “Make CUNY Free Again Law” on the ballot in November’s election. Our proposal will do what Governor Cuomo would not. It will end separate and unequal in New York City’s higher education system by requiring the City to ask the State to authorize a tax on the top 1%. The law will guarantee funding to CUNY on parity with the median per-student expenditure in the private sector, guarantee any New York City resident (U.S. citizen or not) tuition-free access to a college education or the remedial programs necessary to prepare for college, stipends to remove poverty as a barrier to student success, and equity in pay between part-time and full-time faculty and staff, and between the public and private sectors.

For 40 years, the political class has pushed higher education farther out of reach for poor and working-class New Yorkers. If our campaign is successful, on November 7, 2017 we the people will go to the polls to have our say: education is a human right.

The Campaign to Make CUNY Free Again is an independent initiative of CUNY students, faculty, staff, and community members in New York City. On Facebook & Twitter @MakeCUNYfree.

Erik Forman (@_erikforman) teaches in the public K-12 and higher education system in New York City and is the co-founder of the NYC Social Justice Curriculum Fair.

Tim Hardin is an Inwood-based activist, Army combat veteran, and NYC DSA organizer who attends BMCC and advocates for a free CUNY, single-payer healthcare in NY, and other local and state grassroots campaigns.

Jennifer Hyman graduated from Hunter College with a BA in Political Science and Philosophy and from SUNY Binghamton with an MA in Social, Political, Ethical, and Legal Philosophy in 2011.

Rosa Squillacote is a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center; Hunter College adjunct professor and alum; and organizer with the CUNY branch of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Joseph van der Naald is a PhD student in the program in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Conor Tomás Reed is a CUNY doctoral student, scholar-in-residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and organizer in the Campaign to Make CUNY Free Again.

Joseph Sellman is a community organizer and regional board member of Citizen Action New York, an active member of Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL-NY), and an ‘83 alum of Baruch College.

Meghann Williams is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at Hunter College and is president of the Hunter College Graduate Student Association.

Tiffany Berruti is a queer undergraduate activists at Hunter College, and is currently involved in NYC DSA.

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Cuomo’s Excelsior Plan Falls Far Short of Making CUNY Free Again Fri, 14 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
After the Excelsior Scholarship Cuomo Sanders scholarship

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

Victory for middle class New Yorkers! The state budget finally passed and it includes a number of college affordability reforms for middle class students. Despite some of the shortfalls of these reforms, they are an exciting step forward in reinvesting in the state’s public university systems after years of structural disinvestment, flat financial aid, and tuition hikes.

These reforms must be treated as initial progress toward greater investment into SUNY and CUNY that will truly eliminate cost as a barrier to access and success.

The newly established Excelsior Scholarship will cover the remaining cost of tuition after SUNY or CUNY students have used their Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and their federal Pell grant awards. Only full-time students who come from families with incomes of less than $125,000, who take 30 credits a year, and who graduate on-time will be eligible by the end of a three-year phase-in.

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.

The final deal also includes an idea originally proposed by Senate Republicans called Enhanced TAP (E-TAP), which is an award granted to residents attending private college in the state. Students with family incomes less than $125,000 attending non-profit, degree-granting institutions will receive $3,000 in additional state aid. If the student already receives TAP grants, E-TAP will cover any additional funding needed to meet, but not exceed, the full $3,000 allotment. If the student doesn’t receive TAP, E-TAP will cover the full amount.

Further, the same legislation makes it so the school cannot raise tuition for that student during their time of study and the school must match the award granted under E-TAP in an effort to ensure that an increase in state aid doesn’t reduce the institutional aid a student receives. The rules of the program make it so a student would be eligible for a total of $6,000 in E-TAP, TAP, and institutional aid. However, the program does give schools the opportunity to opt-out of E-TAP and simply offer their students regular TAP awards, should they qualify.

While Governor Cuomo and middle class families are celebrating this victory, there is still a great deal of work to do to make this initiative more inclusive, less penalizing, and more accessible to disadvantaged students who continue to struggle.

Under the new plan, for students who cannot take a 30 credit courseload every year, resident tuition at SUNY and CUNY will increase by $200 annually until 2021 while their TAP awards remain unchanged. And unfortunately, the state’s undocumented students are still excluded from receiving TAP, and by extension, any of the new reforms passed this year such as the Excelsior Scholarship, E-TAP, and the Part-Time Scholarship.

For the most disadvantaged, the news and widespread attention of offering free tuition may encourage more low-income students to consider college as an option -- and that’s a good thing. But we know that tuition is only one piece of the financial puzzle to get students into and through school, and for those students with fewer means to cover books, housing, food and more, the scholarship falls short.

For those students who already attend SUNY or CUNY tuition-free because of TAP and Pell, this scholarship does nothing to actually increase their financial aid. This is especially concerning considering that more than half of CUNY undergraduate students come from family incomes of less than $30,000, making them qualified for enough TAP and Pell awards to cover tuition and allowing for nearly 80 percent of students to graduate debt free. Further, recent research from Sara Goldrick Rab from The Wisconsin Hope Lab finds that 20 percent of community college students are hungry and 13 percent are homeless, further supporting greater financial aid for the most at-need students beyond only covering the cost of tuition.

One of the most damaging parts of the program passed in this state budget agreement includes a provision that will convert both the Excelsior Scholarship and Enhanced TAP dollars granted to students into loans should they leave the state after graduation.

Graduates are required to work and live in the state for the same amount of time they received these awards. This will negatively impact about 20 percent of SUNY students and does not account for graduates who leave to join the military, do community service, or have other extenuating circumstances. Instead of penalizing young adult middle class New Yorkers who were able to successfully graduate on-time and benefit from these programs, state leaders should focus on building a more inclusive economy and creating incentives that reward, not punish, Millennial New Yorkers who stay and work in the state.

Finally, we agree with Governor Cuomo when he speaks about dismally low graduation rates and we support him when he talks about needing to close the college attainment gaps. With a less than 6 percent two-year graduation rate at CUNY community colleges and a less than 15 percent graduation rate at CUNY four-year colleges, it’s clear there needs to be a change. This shouldn’t be surprising when considering that more than 80 percent of incoming CUNY students require some type of remedial coursework. But, eliminating tuition and reducing cost as a barrier to access is only half of the equation to increasing graduation rates, especially among those who are the most academically and economically disadvantaged.

We need to address the above shortfalls of the newly enacted college affordability reforms and strengthen the quality and capacity of SUNY and CUNY to better graduate students on time. This includes greater investment to hire more full-time faculty, dramatically bring to scale proven opportunity programs and supports, and offer need-based financial aid to cover non-tuition related costs.

Kevin Stump is Northeast Director of Young Invincibles. On Twitter @KevinStump & @YoungInvincible.

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After the Excelsior Scholarship Tue, 11 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Assembly Members Propose Changes to Cuomo's Free-Tuition Plan skoufis assembly

Assemblymember James Skouis, right (photo: @JamesSkoufis)

More than 30 members of the state Assembly have signed a budget letter to their Speaker, Carl Heastie, outlining an alternative version of the free college tuition proposal being championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo that they want Heastie to adopt for the chamber.

The Assembly members, all Democrats, aim to make Cuomo’s plan more inclusive of the middle class and to ease proposed aid restrictions for the students at New York public universities who stand to benefit from the program.

The letter, drafted by Assemblymember James Skoufis of Orange and Rockland Counties, recommends three changes to the governor’s Excelsior Scholarship, which Cuomo unveiled in January with the help of former presidential candidate and liberal icon Senator Bernie Sanders. It was the first and anchor proposal of Cuomo’s 2017 State of the State agenda.

Cuomo’s plan guarantees free tuition at city and state colleges for students from households earning up to $125,000 per year, and is designed to make college more accessible and improve graduation rates in New York State. While many low-income students are already eligible for significant state aid to afford college, Cuomo said his plan was to ensure many middle class students could also attend college tuition-free.

However, the governor’s plan has been criticized by college accessibility advocates for its restrictive four-year graduation requirements and “last-dollar” provision that supplements tuition costs only after Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and Pell grants have been expended. Currently, students who are eligible for full tuition aid are not compelled to use Pell funds for tuition, rather they can be designated for books, transportation, and other college-related expenses. Many are mindful that tuition is not the only college cost and want to see the governor take that into account.

The Assembly members’ letter asks Speaker Heastie to include in the Assembly’s one-house budget a tuition plan that rejects the "last-dollar" component of the Excelsior Scholarship as well as the 15-credit per semester requirement. With Democrats strongly in control of the chamber, they have a solid chance to see their proposal included in the one-house plan -- which, along with the Senate’s budget proposal, is expected to be released later this month. The Senate is narrowly controlled by Republicans, who have been warm to Cuomo’s tuition-free idea, but expressed concerns about how it will be paid for.

The Assembly letter also recommends the scholarship be applied to students from households earning up to $175,000 per year.

“SUNY and CUNY campuses host an undergraduate population that totals nearly 650,000 students,” the letter states. “Additionally, over 160,000 students are enrolled in Open SUNY and earning online credits towards a degree. Yet, the Excelsior Program is projected to benefit only 32,000 students once fully implemented in fiscal year 2019-20. This amounts to less than 5% of the entire undergraduate population.”

Skoufis has proposed a similar “tuition-free New York” bill, which has been introduced in the Assembly every year since 2014, but the legislation never made it past committee. He says many middle class families are excluded under the current Cuomo proposal.

The Assembly member cited the example of a household with two full-time teachers, each of them earning an average of $77,000 per year. However, he noted, if they live in particular zip codes, they may face high living expenses or exorbitant property taxes. “If you have two teachers in your household, by any standard, that’s a middle class household. Yet, they are going to fall above this threshold and get zero help,” Skoufis told Gotham Gazette.

He also criticized Cuomo’s “punitive” provision that would drop students from the program if their course load fell below 15 credits at any point. According to Skoufis’ bill, students would be required to graduate a two-year college within three years or a four-year college within five years to remain in the program -- it is the equivalent of 12 credits per semester. “There needs to be some flexibility here,” he said.

The proposed changes echo some of the criticisms of the Excelsior Scholarship raised during last month’s joint legislative budget hearing on higher education. Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Assembly higher education committee, said the committee intends to put forward its own proposal, one that addresses all aspects of the higher education budget and the way it impacts CUNY and SUNY schools.

“My feeling is we could perhaps utilize those resources in a way that would help SUNY and CUNY, if the goal is completion,” Glick said, in an interview, of state money that would go toward tuition-free college. “We want to look more broadly at how we can use the same amount of resources to assist a larger number of students to finish their degrees and to do so with little or no debt.”

Other criticisms, which have been raised by higher education committees in both chambers, concerned insufficient state funds going to the schools’ operating budgets, a proposed restriction on TAP funding for private colleges that increase their tuition more than $500, and a “punitive” tithing on money raised by CUNY foundations for tuition assistance.

The Skoufis-led proposal drew praise from advocates. "Fortunately, this plan recognizes the majority of students take more than four years to graduate and that most middle income families still need support beyond tuition relief,” said Kevin Stump, Northeast Director of Young Invincibles, in a statement. “However, while these proposed improvements are a big step forward, the state will still need to address the inadequacies of the Tuition Assistance Program."

In January, the Independent Democratic Conference, which is in a power-sharing coalition with Senate Republicans, released its agenda, which includes an expansion of the TAP. The IDC is at times able to sway the Senate GOP majority into adopting positions that may be more favorable to Democrats. The Assembly Minority also supports TAP expansion.

Prior to a February 15 deadline, Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, received hundreds of letters from legislators recommending measures to be included in the chamber’s one-house budget proposal, which will be discussed by the Assembly over the next two weeks.

Of the Assembly members’ tuition proposal, Michael Whyland, a spokesperson for the speaker, said, “We are discussing the issue with our members.”

When reached for comment, the governor's office stood by the Excelsior proposal, but did not indicate whether Cuomo would be amenable to the suggested changes. "Our goal is to provide as many New Yorkers as possible -- regardless of race or religion; gender or orientation; documentation or ability; Zip code or lineage -- the opportunity to go to college tuition free, and that goal is met with the Excelsior Scholarship program," said Cuomo's spokesperson Dani Lever via email.

A new state budget is due by April 1, which is the start of the next fiscal year. Cuomo is likely to insist that some version of his tuition-free program is in the final spending plan for the state’s 2017-2018 fiscal year.

The story has been updated to include a comment from Cuomo's office.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Assembly Members Propose Changes to Cuomo's Free-Tuition Plan Wed, 01 Mar 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Cuomo’s Tuition-Free Plan Must Be More Inclusive Cuomo tuition-free college announcement

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

Governor Cuomo’s plan to make tuition free for many New York State residents who attend SUNY or CUNY two- or four-year schools would be an exciting step toward ensuring students across the state can access New York’s prized public university systems. The newly-announced Excelsior Scholarship proposal could help 940,000 families who qualify for the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) with annual incomes less than $125,000. The program is designed to fill the gaps in tuition aid after state and federal grants have been used.

This is a big deal that New Yorkers should celebrate.

Yet, only increasing tuition aid is not enough alone to ensure true financial access. The proposal is a “last dollar” award, backfilling aid after state and federal grants, and therefore the program does not help low-income students who already have the full costs of their tuition covered by Pell and TAP but struggle to afford other expenses associated with earning a degree, such as books, child care, housing, transportation, and more.

In fact, non-tuition expenses make up the majority of the full cost of attending four-year and two-year public institutions. The Excelsior Scholarship program must come with a commitment to help cover these additional costs to allow students who enroll to actually stay in school, access the resources they need, and finish their degrees.

In addition to potentially leaving out the most at-need students who require more support than tuition coverage, the Excelsior Scholarship proposal turns a blind eye to some of New York’s neediest communities who would greatly benefit from a pathway to a free degree. Only students attending school full-time and who graduate on-time would be eligible to participate. This excludes part-time students, many of whom are balancing work and family responsibilities, requiring more than just free tuition to be able to attend college full-time. For the more than 84,000 undergraduate students at CUNY who attend part-time, representing almost 35 percent of undergraduate students, the Excelsior Scholarship falls short.

Another group excluded from this program are the more than 8,300 undocumented students currently attending SUNY or CUNY. The governor must hold true to his promises made to immigrant New Yorkers over the last few weeks by expanding the Excelsior Scholarship program to undocumented students and once and for all giving them access to state grants like the Tuition Assistance Program to access college.

The plan also claims it will increase on-time graduation rates by providing four years of tuition-free education, but we know being able to afford tuition doesn’t guarantee completion. It’s promising the governor is focused on improving graduation rates considering that less than 50 percent of four-year SUNY students and less than 30 percent of CUNY students graduate within four years. However, any plan to bolster timely completion must come with a commitment to significantly expanding opportunity programs that include academic and financial supports and services that support students while in school. This includes bringing to scale initiatives like CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) to ensure that disadvantaged students from underserved communities can equitably access and make the most of a free public higher education when given the opportunity.

Addressing the cost of tuition is a critical step toward getting more young New Yorkers to complete college, but tuition is not the only barrier to success. To meet the needs of New York’s students, to make sure they get the skills and training needed to meet the demands of the economy and combat New York’s high young adult unemployment crisis, Governor Cuomo and state legislators need to expand this burgeoning plan to include the most vulnerable students.

The governor’s foundational investment and enthusiasm toward making college more accessible by making it more affordable is a promising step forward. However, we need to ensure this program is expanded to include those New Yorkers with the least access and with greatest challenges to earning a college degree.

Kevin Stump is the Northeast Director for Young Invincibles, an advocacy and policy organization working on higher education, health, and jobs issues impacting 18-34 year olds. YI is also a part of President Obama's College Promise Task Force. On Twitter @KevinStump and @YoungInvincible.

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Cuomo’s Tuition-Free Plan Must Be More Inclusive Wed, 04 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Report Shows Barriers, Offers Solutions for Non-Traditional Higher-Ed Students adult learners table brochures

(photo: Kevin Caraballo for NYC Schools)

As the job market has evolved over the past several decades, job requirements have become more and more specialized, requiring degrees and certifications that were not previously necessary. This has forced many who would not previously have considered higher education to pursue postsecondary programming.

In 1973, 28 percent of jobs nationwide required some level of postsecondary education. By 2018, that number is expected to hit 63 percent. This shift has led to a shift in what the postsecondary student population looks like, and these trends have exposed a gap in education offerings.

“The economy is becoming more and more dependent on skilled workers,” said Christian Gonzalez-Rivera, senior researcher at the Center for an Urban Future and author of a new report on “nontraditional students” and their paths to postsecondary degrees. “Employers who once hired people right out of high school for manufacturing are now looking for people with some postsecondary education, whether that’s a Bachelor’s degree, or an Associate’s degree, or a credential in a specific field.”

New York state is no exception to this trend. According to a new CUF study, New York’s public higher education systems, the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY), have seen a large influx of what CUF calls “nontraditional students”-- any student that is over the age of 25, enrolled part-time, working with a full-time job while attending school, raising children, or providing for dependents.

According to the study, The New Normal: Supporting Nontraditional Students on the Path to a Degree, “in New York City, 27 percent of community college students are aged 25 and older, 50 percent have a paying job (52 percent of working students work more than 20 hours a week), and 16 percent have children who they are supporting financially.” Additionally, one in four CUNY students are adults (25+).

“The student body is rather different from what it used to be. While the traditional student is somebody who attends school on a full-time basis, perhaps does a four-year program...increasingly you’re finding a lot more students who are adults or who already have children or are taking care of sick or elderly relatives who also need to go back to school because they know they need to increase their skills if they’re going to compete in today’s labor market,” said Gonzalez-Rivera in an interview discussing the report.

CUF reports that there are currently 139,501 students enrolled on a part-time basis at community colleges operated by SUNY or CUNY. In 1980, 32% of students nationwide attended community college part-time; 42% now do so. Part-timers at SUNY have a 28 percent graduation rate, while at CUNY that number is 24 percent.

“The problem with attending on a part-time basis is that it takes too long, it costs too much and because it takes so long it increases the chances that something’s going to get in the way,” Gonzalez-Rivera said. “The chances increase that you’re actually going to get derailed before you finish.”

While nontraditional students now make up a significant proportion of students in New York’s public higher education systems, these systems have failed to keep up with the changing demographics of their students. “State and federal education policy haven’t really kept up with that new trend,” according to Gonzalez-Rivera. “As a result you have really, really low graduation rates at community colleges.”

CUF’s report proposes several policy changes that would make higher education a lot more feasible for nontraditional students. Some smaller changes include block scheduling, more intensive and proactive advising aimed at preventing failure before it occurs, and “wrap around services” that provide help with non-academic issues such as child care or accessing public benefits.

Gonzalez-Rivera calls them “guided pathways” and believes they would help students structure their programs according to their other obligations, and to “decide what is the minimum path that you can take through school, what are the classes that you have to take in order to complete this degree without distractions.”

CUF is also proposing a much larger policy change that would restructure the traditional higher education paradigm. They call this proposal “stackable certification programs.” The idea is that in order to make it easier for nontraditional students to finish their degree, community colleges should offer students segmented certifications that qualify them for progressively more advanced jobs throughout their time at school, allowing them to earn an income and pay tuition.

As Gonzalez-Rivera put it, “Instead of having somebody have to wait two years to get their credential, they can get a credential every six months, that way they have something in hand and they don’t just go into college, drop out and come out with’s about having educational pathways that link up with your career pathways.”

While there are schools that agree with this model, the main obstacles to implementing such a program are accreditation and financial aid regulations. As Gonzalez-Rivera explained, state and federal financial aid programs use highly specific definitions of what exactly constitutes a valid degree program and therefore what programs can qualify for financial aid. “It has to be 15 weeks, at least 600 semester hours, there’s all these technicals definitions,” he said. “The issue is that colleges are innovating in different ways that have nothing to with how long a student is actually sitting in a classroom.”

These innovations include online coursework, expanded course hours in the evening and on weekends, and year-round programs that expedite the length of the program while accommodating to working students’ schedules. Such programs and innovations cannot be effective if they don’t meet financial aid requirements, as many of the students who would be looking to take advantage are lower income and require financial assistance in order to pursue the programs at all.

This is where the intersections between nontraditional students and other issues such as race and socioeconomic status become clear. “Community colleges tend to be, especially for poorer students and students with many other responsibilities outside of school, the community colleges tend to be sort of their entry into higher education,” said Gonzalez-Rivera.

According to CUF, 66% of college-attending African-American students nationwide are enrolled at community college. For Latino students that number is 59%. “When it comes to people of color, lower-income people, the very people who really need that leg up to be able to compete in the labor force are the people who are being left behind by policies that have not kept up with the changing demographics,” Gonzalez-Rivera said.

To properly serve the growing nontraditional student population, CUF argues, community colleges must reform to find “ways to innovate so that students are able to get in, learn the skills that they need and get out very quickly.”

by Luke Foley, Gotham Gazette

Report Shows Barriers, Offers Solutions for Non-Traditional Higher-Ed Students Wed, 21 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Could CUNY Be Tuition-Free Again? hunter college graduation

(photo via Hunter College)

Members of the New York City Council want the City University of New York (CUNY) to return to providing a virtually tuition-free college education to local students, but major issues stand in the way.

For years, students, teachers, elected officials and education activists have led an on-and-off crusade to reduce tuition at CUNY and reinvest in higher education. CUNY was free for qualifying city students from its inception in 1847 until 1976, when a city fiscal crisis led to change. Recently, these efforts were reignited through a City Council bill that would establish a task force to propose ways to eliminate tuition at CUNY.

Brooklyn Council Member Inez Barron, chair of the Council’s higher education committee, introduced the bill in April. The committee held a preliminary hearing on the bill on June 16, during which Barron said, “College should be a right that is part and parcel of a commitment we make to provide free public education in grades K to 12.”

It is a “commitment” that was, in fact, extended to college for the majority of CUNY’s history - more than 150 years where the city university system has been an engine of opportunity for city residents, especially those from modest socioeconomic backgrounds.

Since 1976 and the institution of tuition at all CUNY colleges, CUNY has depended on a constantly shifting balance of state, city, and tuition funds to operate. Over the years, however, the state’s contribution has steadily decreased, tipping more of the financial burden to its 270,000 degree-seeking students in the form of rising tuition costs.

According to the city’s Independent Budget Office, state aid accounted for 68% of total CUNY funding in 1989, but only 48% by 2006. Conversely, tuition funding rose by 20% during the same time period. Today, tuition revenue accounts for 45% of CUNY’s funding - a far cry from the university’s original namesake, the “Free Academy.” As of Fall 2016, full-time annual tuition rates are set at $6,330 for CUNY’s 11 senior colleges and $4,800 at it’s seven community colleges.

Elected officials have made intermittent attempts to reverse the trend of state disinvestment, including a City Council resolution calling for increased state funding and a state Maintenance of Effort (MOE) bill to baseline CUNY financial support. These calls have gone largely unanswered, as CUNY’s resources have become more and more strained. Gov. Andrew Cuomo attempted to shift more CUNY costs to the city in his last budget proposal, but was unsuccessful in the final agreement with legislative leaders. The governor is insisting on reductions in administrative costs, which he says are out of control.

Now, Council Member Barron has introduced the ambitious notion of eliminating tuition entirely. Her task force bill has a total of ten sponsors in the 51-member Council. If passed and signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, a 13-member group would take on the challenge.

Financially, free tuition at CUNY may not be entirely out of reach.

According to University Executive Budget Director Catherine Abata, who also testified at the initial Council hearing on the bill, tuition revenue made up $1.5 billion of CUNY’s $3.2 billion 2015-2016 budget. Abata said that excluding state and federal financial aid (which includes loans), students end up paying $784 million of that amount in out-of-pocket tuition expenses. This includes both undergraduate and graduate students. Eliminating tuition at CUNY would essentially necessitate at least $784 million in additional annual CUNY funding from other sources.

At the hearing, City Council Member Jumaane Williams expressed frustration with the reluctance of city and state budget-makers to provide this amount, saying, “look at our budget, and it shows you what’s important. Basically for the city and the state and the federal government, $800 million is not important enough for everybody to have free access to education.”

One reason for the government’s reluctance could be that despite CUNY’s lack of funding, affordability is still a major point of pride for the university. In fact, 66% of full-time CUNY undergraduate students already attend tuition-free, thanks to a combination of financial aid and scholarships, according to CUNY’s website. Some policy experts warn that a free-tuition policy would only benefit the remaining percentage of students that don’t receive any aid; presumably, students who are able to afford their tuition out-of-pocket, though there are several other factors that could disqualify students from financial aid.

Since President Obama first announced “America’s College Promise” early last year, the free higher-education movement has gained momentum on a national scale. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders made free public college one of his campaign pledges when he was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, outlining on his website how the initiative could be funded by imposing a tax on Wall Street speculation.

Sanders even compared his plan to CUNY’s historic period of free tuition. It is unlikely, however, that a tax like Sanders eyed will be used to fund CUNY tuition in New York City, given de Blasio’s failure at securing Albany passage of a tax on upper income earners to fund his universal pre-kindergarten program. Eliminating tuition would likely require a budget commitment from the city and the state. To fund pre-K in New York City and around the state, Gov. Cuomo and legislators allocated the money without raising taxes. To fund the MTA capital plan, both the city and the state recently agreed to kick in billions of dollars more than previously planned.

According to Kevin Stump, Northeast Director of Young Invincibles, a national nonprofit focused on empowering young people, “This last [legislative] session made very clear that Governor Cuomo isn't really interested in maintaining his support and investing in CUNY. He doesn’t really see it as an anti-poverty tool and an economic opportunity tool, like some of us do."

In early January, Cuomo outlined his Executive Budget plan, which showed that the city was to now cover 30% of CUNY’s senior college operating costs, totalling $485 million, with the rationale that city representatives currently make up 30% of the CUNY Board of Trustees (he also said that the city is doing much better financially than it was decades ago). After significant public pushback, Cuomo stated in March that he would work with the city to find “efficiencies” in the budget that would account for the $485 million and “not cost CUNY a penny.”

The state has provided the majority of CUNY’s senior college funding since 1976. On March 16, Director of State Operations Jim Malatras essentially withdrew Cuomo’s budget proposal, saying in a statement that “the $1.6 billion in aid [CUNY] receives has not changed, and will not change under this budget.” Nevertheless, Cuomo’s shake-up, which many viewed as an effort to hurt de Blasio, left doubts about the state’s future commitment to CUNY.

While several hundred million dollars per year is not that significant a portion of the state ($147 billion) or city ($82 billion) budget, the task force established by Barron’s bill, should it pass, would face a number of obstacles in restoring free tuition. Any path returning to a tuition-free CUNY would likely be a long one.

Since its establishment as the “Free Academy” in 1847, CUNY has strived to achieve its mission of providing all New Yorkers with accessible and affordable higher education. For almost 130 years, CUNY provided full-time students with qualifying academic merit the opportunity to study tuition-free at any of its institutions. At first, CUNY mainly consisted of four-year colleges like Hunter, Baruch, and City College. In 1957, CUNY established its first community college in the Bronx, and continued expanding from there.

Historically, economically disadvantaged New Yorkers, especially those from communities of color, have viewed a degree from CUNY as a tool toward advancement. A college education means career options, higher lifetime wages, and opportunity for socioeconomic mobility. CUNY is home to thousands of first-generation college students; 42% of the student population according to a 2014 CUNY survey.

After multiple student uprisings calling for increased diversity in the CUNY system in 1969, CUNY officially instated an Open Admissions policy, meaning that any student who graduated from a New York City public high school could matriculate for free. This led to a dramatic rise in attendance, coupled with a shift in student demographics that made it more closely reflect New York City’s diverse population. This period was short-lived, however, as seven years later, in 1976, the city experienced a major fiscal crisis. After being bailed out by the state, CUNY instituted tuition for all students for the first time, and enrollment slowed.

Tuition Today
According to the Independent Budget Office, “While tuition charges at private institutions generally rise each year, tuition levels at CUNY have followed a less regular pattern, with a sharp increase often followed by several years with no change.” In 2011, the New York State Legislature attempted to remedy this situation by passing a bill known as SUNY 2020, which authorized both SUNY (the larger statewide public college system) and CUNY schools to increase tuition by $300 annually for the next five years, while the state guaranteed not to reduce funding for baseline operating costs from the prior fiscal year.

The bill was not renewed during this past state legislative session, expiring July 1 and resulting in a welcome one-year tuition freeze at CUNY, but leaving ambiguity in the state’s future level of financial commitment. Currently, annual tuition for those enrolled for Fall of 2016 will remain at $4,800 for CUNY community colleges and $6,330 at senior colleges, according to the university’s website. These costs can be mitigated by financial aid.

On top of tuition, there are a variety of additional expenses incurred by students when pursuing a college degree, of course.

Students who attend college full-time, or even part-time, must account for food, books, transportation, and housing. According to the CUNY website, these additional expenses amount to $9,592 for CUNY in-state students living at home, and $20,295 for in-state students not living at home. Federal Pell grants and the State’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) provide aid to needy students, but they often fall short of covering every necessary expense. Currently, the maximum annual TAP award is $5,165, and maximum Pell Grant is $5,915. While Pell Grants can be used to cover additional expenses, TAP exclusively covers tuition, and is heavily guarded by a host of recipient qualifications.

According to Amanda Roman, a political science major at College of Staten Island, a CUNY school, and member of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), “Programs like TAP don’t cover full college costs for many, and have not kept up with the needs of all student types, beyond just the straight-from-high-school-to-college full-time student.”

Stump explained further, “While TAP does need serious dollar investment, it also needs some serious structural changes to it as well.” For many categories of students, TAP aid is virtually out of reach. This includes undocumented students, which legislation known as the DREAM Act is aimed at reversing - it would allow financial aid to all students. Gov. Cuomo has expressed support for the DREAM Act and the Democrat-controlled Assembly has passed it multiple times, but the Republican-controlled Senate has not consented.

TAP is also withheld from most part-time students, who made up over 100,000 of CUNY enrollment as of Fall 2015. Part-time students must first attend school full-time for one year before being TAP eligible; an often implausible requirement, considering many part-time students are older and returning to school while working.

Significantly, TAP has not kept up with the annual increases in tuition laid out by SUNY 2020, creating what stakeholders refer to as the “TAP gap”: the difference between the tuition rate and the maximum amount of TAP aid provided to the neediest students. CUNY has been required to cover this gap, draining its resources even further.

According to Stump, “Last year alone, CUNY lost nearly $50 million because they had to fill the TAP gap,” using money that was supposed to be allocated for new programs and academic initiatives at the university.

Along with state and federal grants, students rely on loans and income to cover education expenses. In the Fall of 2014, CUNY reported that 30% of students in both senior and community colleges work more than 20 hours a week to afford school.

James Hoff, professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, testified at the June 16 hearing that many of his students “struggle to find time to study for my classes because they are forced to work 30 to 40 hours a week at minimum wage jobs just to pay for tuition and books. I have watched students take on huge course loads that they were unable to handle because they could not afford to pay for additional semesters.”

As the national student debt bill approaches the trillions, CUNY boasts that 80% of its students graduate debt-free. Council Member Barron, however, argues that the assertion of graduating debt-free “raises the question of what percentage of students never graduate, but nonetheless leave CUNY burdened by student loans.” According to an IBO report, “slightly less than a third of students don’t enroll in the fall after their first year.” Many students either drop out, or at the least, take much longer than expected to complete their degree.

In the Fall of 2015, CUNY reported that students were taking out $202 million in federal student loans. A proposal to eliminate tuition would need to carefully consider how this amount should be factored in.

The CUNY tuition task force bill
At the City Council’s full-body Stated Meeting in April, Barron first introduced her bill, Intro 1138, which is summarized on the Council website as such: “This bill would establish a task force to analyze ways to eliminate tuition at the City University of New York and to develop proposals on the role the City can play in working toward that goal. The task force would consist of 13 members, including representatives of the Public Advocate, the Office of Management and Budget and the Speaker, as well as CUNY students, faculty and advocates.”

The Committee on Higher Education’s first hearing on the bill, on June 16, included a full public seating area and testimony by four different panels of individuals representing a variety of groups and perspectives. According to the bill, the task force’s main objective would be to produce a detailed report presenting “an analysis of existing and potential sources of revenue that could replace tuition at the City University of New York, obstacles preventing the elimination of tuition, recommendations for how such obstacles should be addressed and steps the city should take to address them.”

The report would be due six months after the creation of the task force, yet speakers and Council members at the hearing wasted no time delving into the many implications that eliminating tuition would have for the future of CUNY. At the hearing, the most hesitant stakeholder appeared to be the university itself. James Murphy, Senior Enrollment Dean at CUNY, presented a host of potential issues that could result from the sudden elimination of what is currently the university’s largest source of funding.

What ‘Free Tuition’ Actually Means
As Murphy said at the hearing, “affordable to different people means different things.” Before the city or state can even consider investing in free tuition, the task force would need to nail down exactly which students qualify, what expenses would be covered, and how long tuition assistance would be provided, just to name a few concerns.

Many wonder which CUNY colleges, community or senior, should benefit from the initiative. There are advantages and drawbacks to both.

According to a report prepared by the city’s Independent Budget Office, the cost of eliminating tuition at CUNY’s seven community colleges would be $138-232 million per year, depending on factors like limiting the number of years covered or exclusively covering full-time students. Importantly, the IBO estimates assume that a tuition-free program would be structured around existing federal and state aid, which comprises the majority of tuition revenue for CUNY’s community colleges and is currently awarded to about 60% of students.

Another concern is the low readiness and completion rate of students at CUNY’s community colleges.

According to the IBO report, “Two years after initial enrollment, just 4 percent of students have earned their associate's degrees.” With such a trend, moving to free tuition may come with a semester limit for students and new efforts at increasing graduation rates.

Lisa Richmond, Executive Director of Graduate NYC, a citywide college readiness and completion initiative, says that college readiness is already “a huge goal of the public school system in New York.” According to Graduate NYC’s 2016 report, 47% of public high school graduates are college-ready, with the goal of increasing this number to 67% by 2020.

Richmond explains that “The college completion equation is certainly about preparedness, affordability, but it’s also about persistence and completion in other ways. In being able to get the classes that you need, and get the advisement to understand what courses you need.” It is these resources that may continue to hinder students on the path towards graduation, despite the possibility of free tuition.

At the Council hearing, Murphy, the CUNY enrollment dean, lamented the lack of resources, like academic counselors, for even the current student population.

CUNY’s Accelerated Studies in Associate Programs (ASAP) is an oft-cited model of success in speeding up graduation rates, and is the closest initiative to a free-tuition policy that the university currently employs. According to a CUNY internal analysis of the program, the average three-year graduation rate for community college students enrolled in ASAP is 53%, compared to 25% of CUNY students not in ASAP and a 16% national average.

What sets ASAP apart, they found, is the level of resources provided to students beyond free tuition. These resources include subsidized Metrocards, textbooks, and intensive mentoring and career services.

According to the IBO report, “an increase in graduation rates resulting from a more modest program that only offered free tuition could also produce fiscal benefits,” however, the report “emphasizes the importance of the full range of services offered” by ASAP that exceed a tuition-free policy.

While solely funding CUNY’s community colleges has a more feasible price tag and would benefit the neediest students, concerns mounted at the Council hearing over what Harold Stolper, Senior Economist at the Community Service Society of New York, called “under-matching.” According to Stolper, “even for low-income students who are sufficiently prepared to succeed at four-year colleges, the perception that this path is unaffordable reduces the incentives to apply to more selective colleges.”

If tuition were eliminated only at community colleges, the city may experience highly unbalanced enrollment rates between CUNY’s two- and four-year colleges. Stolper claimed that this trend already exists on a smaller scale: between 2008 and 2014, he said, “enrollment growth among the lowest income aid applicants was relatively slow at four-year colleges where price rose the fastest, while enrollment grew much faster for these students at two-year colleges where price growth was minimal.”

Including CUNY’s 11 senior colleges in the deal, which, according to Abata’s estimates, would increase the bill to around $784 million per year, poses its own challenges concerning enrollment rates.

City Council Member Vanessa Gibson, of the Bronx, said at the hearing, “Many of our colleges are literally bursting at the seams because of enrollment.” Even with its cost, CUNY remains the most affordable choice for higher education within the city; many students receive partial tuition assistance, and 66% of full-time undergraduate students attend CUNY tuition free. Should CUNY eliminate tuition for all students, however, people from all across the country may also flock to CUNY schools to take advantage of the chance to live and study for free in New York City.

Murphy explained, “A lot of these individuals come from communities in more affluent parts of the country, where they have one counselor for every 50 students [the rate is much more lopsided in New York City], and they just get their admissions applications out sooner.” Many are concerned that these students would effectively shut out local New York high school graduates, for whom the policy is primarily meant to benefit in the first place.

Ideally, a program that eliminates tuition would benefit as many students, in and out-of-state, as possible, without overextending resources from CUNY and the different levels of government contributing funding. This balance may very well be impossible to achieve.

More presently, CUNY has been facing existential crises.

From professors who have gone years without a raise to reports of leaky hallways and rodent-infested classrooms, CUNY has more than its fair share of challenges, in part due to government disinvestment. As the New York Times reported in a May, state government funding for CUNY has dropped by 17% over the last eight years, resulting in budget cuts to many CUNY programs that affect students, professors, and staff. According to the Times, the number of adjunct faculty members, who are paid less and receive almost no contractual benefits, has risen by 23% since 2009.

Stephen Brier, a Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and co-author of Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education, cautioned that “those endemic problems cannot and will not be solved by instituting a free tuition policy alone, however desirable that policy would be.”

According to Murphy, “Over the past eight years, CUNY enrollment has increased by 30,000 students, and we do not currently have the faculty or space to significantly increase enrollment any further.” A free-tuition policy may very well necessitate additional infrastructure, staff, and student resources.

Michael Fabricant, First Vice President of the Professional Staff Congress, the union that represents over 25,000 CUNY employees, recommended that the task force add the goal of examining “existing and potential sources of revenue that could provide resources beyond replacing tuition, given the university’s serious and long-term underfunding.”

Is Free Tuition the Right Battle?
Some argue that free-tuition initiatives won’t benefit students in need, and ultimately gloss over foundational changes that need to be addressed first in the higher education system. Preston Cooper, policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute, said, “I really don't think asking whether we should change who pays for college is the right question to be asking. It’s how much we should be paying for college in the first place.”

According to Cooper, federal aid and tuition are caught in “a vicious cycle” in which increases in maximum federal aid encourage administrators to raise tuition, inflating the cost of attendance. Cooper worries this cycle could be further inflamed by the establishment of free tuition, with CUNY “tuition” increased to try and capture additional aid from the state and city. The dynamic could prove costly and even prohibitive were a free-tuition program to be introduced that excluded out-of-state students.

Another issue inherent in free tuition is what Max Eden, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, calls the “substitution effect,” where middle-class students, who may be able to afford college elsewhere, decide to go to CUNY to take advantage of free tuition, edging out lower-income students who view CUNY as their only option. This could decrease socioeconomic and other measures of diversity at CUNY - as of Fall 2014, 39% of undergraduate students had a household income of less than $20,000. Experts stress that it is this specific group, and not the entire population, that a targeted financial investment must be made towards.

According to Eden, “The government is involved in higher education to help solve a problem: that it might not be provided for kids with limited economic backgrounds. If, and when, it goes above and beyond that, to trying to subsidize everybody, that will not only have financial costs. It will have a cost to the reason the government got into it in the first place.”

Next Steps
Moving ahead, it is to-be-seen whether the bill to create the tuition-free CUNY task force gains momentum, is passed by the Council and signed by the mayor. If it is enacted and the task force is formed and makes its recommendations, it would essentially then cease to exist, once again leaving the free-tuition discussion with state lawmakers and CUNY administrators.

For now, CUNY has pressing needs. Fabricant, of the CUNY employee union, says, “We need to remember that public higher education is a public good that the State of New York needs to recommit substantial economic resources to.”

by Amanda Sherwin, Gotham Gazette

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Could CUNY Be Tuition-Free Again? Tue, 19 Jul 2016 04:00:00 +0000