Local Educators Respond to Cuomo Tuition Pitch

College Banners
College banners on a wall at Pierson Middle-High School on January 17. Christine Sampson photo
College Banners
College banners on a wall at Pierson Middle-High School on January 17. Christine Sampson photo

By Christine Sampson

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has pitched a plan to make the state’s public colleges and universities tuition-free, a plan that has some in the local educational community feeling cautiously optimistic.

Governor Cuomo’s $163 million plan is wrapped into his executive budget, which still needs approval from the New York State Legislature. Many details have yet to be finalized, but the proposal calls for tuition-free enrollment in State University of New York or City University of New York schools for students from middle-class families. The program does not include room-and-board for students going away to school.

“I think we always worry, when we hear the talking points, that will it be enough?” Sag Harbor School Superintendent Katy Graves said Tuesday. “. . .The good news is that the conversation has begun. By offering tuition to students who have had road blocks in their way, students who may not have considered college will now consider college.”

Questions have been raised over whether the program will widely benefit students on the South Fork because the program’s income threshold may be low relative to the general levels of wealth often associated with living here. The income cut-off is $100,000 for 2017 and would rise to $125,000 by 2019. However, Bonnie Michelle Cannon, executive director of the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center, which offers college prep and financial aid workshops, said many students will benefit.

“There are a lot of families here that are not making $125,000. It will have a great impact,” she said.

Timing is also an issue. If approved, the program would begin in the fall of 2017, but most seniors are in the throes of the admissions process right now and will likely need to make decisions before the state budget is finalized later this year.

“For some of the students it feels a little bittersweet,” Ms. Graves said. “Our guidance counselors are working hard to meet their needs, research this and get the info out as soon as possible. … You don’t want to give up a private school offering a student a merit or legacy scholarship that may balance out what they would have been offered at a state university, so there are a lot of factors to weigh.”

Some educators are worried that free SUNY and CUNY tuition would increase competitiveness among student applicants and push class sizes to the maximum.

“I do believe the public schools are going to be swamped with applications,” Ms. Cannon said. “Will they be able to accommodate all the qualified applicants? That’s going to be the big thing that’s going to show whether or not the program will work and do what it’s supposed to do. If you have 100 applications but you only have 10 seats available for qualified students, then that’s a problem.”

The potential for strained resources has college administrators hoping the governor’s tuition plan comes with increased support for the schools themselves.

“We applaud Governor Cuomo’s proposal to make public higher education more affordable for families in need. . . . It is also important to maintain the quality of our public institutions as we increase access, so we are hopeful that any aid strategy be coupled with the predictable tuition methodology proposed by SUNY and/or a base increase for the campuses,” Judith Greiman, chief deputy to the president and vice president for governmental and community relations at Stony Brook University, said in an email to The Express.

New York State Senator Kenneth LaValle, who represents the East End and who is the chairman of New York’s Senate Committee on Higher Education, said by phone on Friday that he would need to see more details from the governor’s budget before he could comment on the plan, but noted the plan has both support and opposition from within his constituency.

Governor Cuomo’s budget was released late in the day on Tuesday, but a representative for Senator LaValle said he was still in the process of evaluating the details and could not comment by press time.

New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. issued a statement supporting Gov. Cuomo’s plan on January 6.

“Higher education is the key to success in an increasingly competitive global economy, yet it is becoming more and more unaffordable for the middle class,” he said. “With student loan debt in America exceeding $1 trillion, young Americans are starting adult life deeper in debt, greatly affecting our state’s economy. I commend Governor Cuomo for taking a stand and taking the steps necessary to help the next generation of students get their education.”

Kate Lawton, a Sag Harbor parent who has a son attending the Stony Brook School, said the proposal “could be an amazing opportunity” for a lot of students. She said older students don’t understand the magnitude of what college debt means “until they’re right up against it, or until they really see that their parents are really struggling or looking at $60,000 a year and up.”

Ms. Lawton said the proposal could mean college-bound students may start to consider more public schools in addition to the private schools they may traditionally have aimed for. She feels the program “absolutely should be extended to private schools.”

“That said, we have to start somewhere,” she said. “I’m thrilled the governor is proposing this.”