When Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an ambitious plan to provide free tuition at state colleges, it was hailed as a milestone. If passed by the legislature, it would relieve thousands of families of a huge burden by offering free two- and four-year tuition to those earning less than $125,000 per year.
But in the days since it was announced, observers have taken a closer look at the plan’s fine print, and some say that despite its sweeping scope, it doesn’t do enough for many needy students.
The governor’s office has released few details about the plan, but so far it is clear that part-time students would not qualify, even though they comprise roughly a third of the student body at CUNY and SUNY colleges. Neither would undocumented students, since they are currently ineligible for state financial aid. And the plan, as proposed, would “cover the remaining tuition costs” for students already receiving federal and state grants, but does not mention providing funds for additional expenses such as room and board.
“I think we just have to be clear about who’s going to benefit and how much they’re going to benefit,” said Raymond Domanico, director of education research at the city’s Independent Budget Office. “It’s not low-income. It’s the less poor and the working class.”
Some of the plan’s supporters have wondered why the price tag for the governor’s plan seemed relatively low — an estimated $163 million per year. In part, that’s because part-time students are excluded, significantly limiting the population Cuomo’s plan serves. CUNY had more than 80,000 undergraduate students attending its colleges part-time in the fall of 2015.
Cuomo’s office said the decision to exclude part-time students was meant to encourage students to go to school full-time, since full-time students are more likely to graduate. Less than 40 percent of students attending four-year public universities and roughly 8.5 percent of those attending two-year colleges in New York graduated on time in 2013, according to a state press release.
Research shows the educational plans of part-time students are more easily derailed, and being fully invested in campus activities, such as clubs and support groups, help students stay in school, said Ann Marcus, a professor of higher education at the Steinhardt Institute at NYU.
Yet, part-time students often need to hold jobs either to support themselves or their families, Marcus said. “Most people who are part-time students, they are all people who feel like they either can’t or don’t want to give up their job.”
Cuomo’s current cost estimates also do not include funding for undocumented students, a spokesperson from the governor’s office confirmed. SUNY does not keep track of how many undocumented students are enrolled statewide, a spokesperson said. But there are approximately 3,800 full-time undocumented students attending CUNY schools.
State Democrats and Republicans have clashed for years over state’s DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented New York state students to receive state aid. Though undocumented students are not included in the current proposal, Cuomo pledged to keep pushing for the DREAM Act this year.
“We support the DREAM Act and will work to ensure both proposals are passed,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer.
Meanwhile, critics say, there’s another population the program does little to serve: the state’s neediest students. While their tuition may already be entirely covered by federal Pell grants and state aid, Cuomo’s proposal does nothing to help them with additional expenses, such as rent and food, argued Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, in a recent Washington Post op-ed.
Ruth Genn, executive director of the New York office of Bottom Line, which helps low-income students navigate the college process, knows that firsthand. Though her organization is excited about Cuomo’s proposal, she says it’s not a panacea.
“[Tuition] doesn’t cover all the other things that our students are facing,” she said. Students are “taking out loans to cover those expenses.”