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What Happens if Free Tuition Comes to Campus?

Presidents of public institutions in New York say they welcome Governor Cuomo's plan and could find ways to enroll many more. But they still have questions.

January 5, 2017
 
New York State Capitol

How will New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s tuition-free public college plan affect individual campuses?

It’s not a completely fair question, at least not yet. The truth is that no one quite knows at the moment. Cuomo issued a broad proposal Tuesday calling for the creation of an Excelsior Scholarship that would stack on top of existing federal and state grants to pay for tuition for students at public two- and four-year institutions whose families earn $125,000 or less. No legislation had been filed on the matter as of Wednesday afternoon, and the proposal will still have to go through the wringer of the New York State Legislature.

In other words, public higher education leaders are awaiting details.

They're not the only ones. New York's private colleges have shown skepticism about the proposal, with some saying they're waiting for more information and others questioning whether Cuomo's proposal is necessary or draws on funding that could be better spent.

Still, interviews on Wednesday with several leaders of the institutions that would be most immediately affected -- New York's public institutions -- reflected optimism. Cuomo’s plan could boost interest in attending college, keep enrolled students in class and ultimately lead to more students on campuses, they said. If that scenario plays out, they said they have the capacity to handle more students on their campuses, at least to a degree.

Leaders at the State University of New York’s 64 campuses greeted the proposal with enthusiasm, in part because it placed support for higher education at the top of the state’s political agenda, said Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher. But within the enthusiasm were questions about impacts on enrollment.

“We’ve learned from other states that investing in this manner increases the pool,” Zimpher said. “I think our base is going to broaden.”

A key question moving forward is whether the student base will broaden across SUNY’s two-year and four-year institutions, Zimpher said. Currently, 40 percent of the system’s baccalaureate degrees issued go to students who started at community colleges. Many campuses are working to make it easier to transfer between the system’s two-year and four-year institutions.

Aligning available seats to student interest will be key. SUNY is already in the process of developing a strategic enrollment plan, visiting individual campuses and making sure they are offering degrees that are needed and in demand. Cuomo’s proposal could fit with that plan, Zimpher said.

Generally, community college enrollments have leveled out but been stable after a jump during the recession, Zimpher said. She hopes Cuomo’s proposal gives community colleges an enrollment bump of 3 percent to 5 percent.

About 223,000 of SUNY's 443,000 enrolled students are in community colleges.

The enrollment question is more complicated for four-year comprehensive colleges, some of which are much more competitive from an admissions standpoint than others.

"The big thing is sorting out who has the capacity to manage demand campus by campus,” Zimpher said. “If you are requesting admission to Cortland, and you don’t get into Cortland, what are the next two comprehensives that would suit your academic interests?”

Still, it’s clear that at least some campuses have excess capacity. SUNY Potsdam has just under 4,000 undergraduates but targets growth to 4,400 students in its five-year plan.

Potsdam is located in New York’s North Country in one of the state’s poorest counties. It’s about 30 miles from the Canadian border. And its enrollment has been lagging in recent years, according to President Kristin G. Esterberg.

“I think like all North Country colleges -- really like New York State as a whole, especially rural comprehensives -- we are down over the last few years,” Esterberg said. “We do have capacity here. We have the ability to serve more students.”

The breakdown of where the students come from will be a key point to watch as well. Federal data show 96 percent of Potsdam’s first-time undergraduate students coming from within New York State. Nearly half of its undergraduates receive federal Pell Grants, a data point considered a proxy for low-income enrollment -- although Cuomo's plan would also aid those with more money.

Potsdam's statistics are roughly in line with the SUNY system as a whole. In 2014-15, 48 percent of full-time undergraduate SUNY students received Pell funding, and 53 percent received the maximum Pell award.

It's still important to note that about a third of Potsdam's students hail from the New York City region, Esterberg said.

If Cuomo’s proposal is successful, it will be worth watching whether Potsdam draws more students from its surrounding region or from other parts of the state -- including the far more wealthy New York City area.

Also worth watching is how any enrollment changes play out at different SUNY campuses. The system’s doctoral centers tend to draw more out-of-state students than its other campuses. Still, they aren't extremely skewed toward out-of-state students. For example, 10 percent of Binghamton University's 2,600 first-time undergraduate students were from out of state in the fall of 2014, and 11 percent were from foreign countries, according to federal data. Only 3 percent of the University at Buffalo’s 3,517 first-time undergraduates were from out of state, and 14 percent were from foreign countries. Stony Brook's 2,855 first-time undergraduates were 9 percent out of state and 16 percent from foreign countries. Albany's 2,548 first-time undergraduates were 7 percent out of state and 7 percent from foreign countries.

Another open question is what happens to admissions standards under the Cuomo proposal. Zimpher, the SUNY chancellor, said they aren't likely to change significantly.

“I think that the admissions standards for our comprehensive colleges are going to hold strong, and if anything, the big gain here is we will boost the number of people who go to college,” Zimpher said.

Cuomo has estimated his plan will cost $163 million per year. Some analysts have questioned whether his idea is the best way to spend money in a state that already offers Tuition Assistance Program grants and other assistance to low-income students. They wonder if the money would be better spent on costs that can keep low-income students from finishing college -- like fees or room and board -- instead of on tuition support for higher-income students who are likely to finish either way.

But the president of the SUNY Student Assembly, Marc Cohen, said the program is an important step for its ability to broadcast to all students, telling them they can afford higher education in New York State. Free tuition is a clear idea that's not bogged down in logistical details, he said.

Some students from families with higher incomes may still struggle to afford higher education, depending on their particular circumstances, Cohen said.

“What students and families care about is affordable access to public higher education in New York,” said Cohen, who is pursuing a master's of public administration at SUNY Albany. “This program accomplishes that.”

The Student Assembly will be watching for the program’s logistical details and fighting for a better deal when appropriate, Cohen added.

Within the SUNY system, the average bachelor's degree recipient who takes out loans graduates with debt slightly over $25,000. The average associate degree graduate averages $14,000 in debt.

The SUNY system has been working to reduce student debt, Zimpher said. On-time completion can be a big part of that, she said. It's a point Cuomo emphasized on Tuesday, noting his proposed program required students to attend full time.

“He wove into the equation full-time enrollment,” Zimpher said. “I can't say that this would necessarily close out the debt problem, but we could get smarter about cost and about using student time productively to get to degree completion or certificate completion.”

Of course, SUNY isn't the only system that would be deeply affected by Cuomo's proposal. The City University of New York would fall under it as well -- Cuomo announced the idea at CUNY's LaGuardia Community College.

Chancellor James B. Milliken said in a statement CUNY is “deeply grateful” for Cuomo's proposal, noting the city system's long history of free tuition for many or all students.

“For much of its existence, because of generous public support, CUNY was able to provide that education tuition-free,” Milliken said in the statement. “Governor Cuomo's bold proposal to provide tuition-free college education for qualifying students renews the commitment to ensure that all New Yorkers can benefit from outstanding public higher education.”

CUNY has been at or near peak enrollment in recent years, totaling 274,357 students systemwide in 2015. But at least some college presidents said they could take a moderate increase driven by the Cuomo plan.

“I could take 5 percent -- I could probably even take a 10 percent increase in enrollment,” said Gail Mellow, LaGuardia Community College president. “I couldn't take 50 percent.”

LaGuardia enrolls about 20,000 students, including full -time, part-time, undergraduate and graduate students.

Mellow is excited by the prospect of the plan attracting students who otherwise weren't considering higher education -- like working adults and those who have been out of high school for years.

Some have pointed out that Cuomo's proposed full-time requirement could be a challenge for such groups. But Mellow still believes the proposal advances higher education for a changing world.

“I think it is really important that this kind of vision is talked about, the tires get kicked, and people figure out how to do the policy implementation phase,” she said.

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