Higher ed read more

New York Gov. Cuomo wants to make free college tuition a reality

Bernie Sanders’ free tuition dream could become a reality in New York

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday announced a plan to make tuition at state colleges and universities free for families earning less than $125,000 a year, a sign that the recent surge in student debt remains a politically potent issue even after the defeat of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

“This society should say, ‘We’re going to pay for college because you need college to be successful.’ And New York State is going to do something about it,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo made the announcement at LaGuardia Community College in the New York City borough of Queens, where he appeared with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Sanders made free college tuition a cornerstone of his failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination last year. And some of Sanders’ free tuition policy was ultimately adopted by the party’s eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton.

The Cuomo plan would offer free tuition at two-year community colleges, and four-year colleges and universities operated by the State University of New York and City University of New York systems. While splashy, it still is just a plan and will require a vote by the state Legislature.

For politicians eager to make a connection with younger voters, the student issue is a clear winner. Rates of student debt have risen rapidly in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Besides mortgage debt, student debt is now the largest category of consumer debt in the country, with nearly $1.3 trillion in loans outstanding.

If it comes to fruition, Cuomo’s plan would be a big deal. New York State has the largest public university system in the country. So a move towards free tuition, would be a widely watched development refocusing attention on an often overlooked component of the student debt crisis: public colleges.

While eye-popping tuition-and-fee costs at elite private institutions are often cited when people talk about rising student debt levels, public schools are much more important to the overall student debt story.

That’s because of sharp declines in public funding for public schools in the aftermath of the Great Recession. That pushed public schools to rely more and more on tuition increases to generate the cash they need to operate. Since 70 percent of four-year college students go to public colleges and universities, those rising tuition rates translate into much higher levels of student debt nationally. In fact, tuition has been rising faster at public schools than it has at private schools.  

But free tuition doesn’t cover it all: Other costs like room and board and fees unmentioned in Cuomo’s announcement can be roughly as high as tuition.

And the plan won’t be cheap. The governor’s office projects the costs for his free tuition program — known as the excelsior scholarship — would be $163 million a year. Be skeptical; such projections can easily end up much higher.

Cuomo says the program, if passed by the Legislature, would be phased in starting this fall.

M-F 7:30PM HBO