Legislators continue to ask about payment sources for Cuomo's free tuition proposal

Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

During Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address roadshow, he announced a plan alongside liberal icon U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders to provide free tuition at SUNY and CUNY colleges for families making up to $125,000 annually.

Liberals rejoiced, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and budget analysts immediately had concerns about how the state would pay for the program and how it would impact private colleges.

“We have yet to see the details of how this proposal is paid for,” Assembly Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Deborah Glick said following the announcement. “The cost estimate of $163 million begs the question: If it costs so little, why haven't we done it before? Naturally, we have to ensure that both SUNY and CUNY have the capacity to continue to provide a quality education. This means that we need to ensure that they have adequate financial support.”

On top of the financial cost, lawmakers expressed concern about the potential increase of student class size as well as New York City’s and the state’s abilities to each handle the increased demand. Introductory classes for new college students sometimes already have hundreds of students per class.

During this year’s first joint budget hearing on higher education, more details were released about the plan, billed as the Excelsior Scholarship. While Cuomo’s proposal originally said more than 940,000 middle-class families would qualify for the program, a legislative analysis found only about 30,000 students would benefit.

Lawmakers at the hearing also expressed concerns about how the state will cover the costs if there is a large increase in students attending these colleges due to the free tuition.

While the push by Cuomo is unprecedented, Jim Malatras, the director of state operations, cited Oregon and Tennessee during the hearing, which are the only two states that offer free tuition – though it’s for community colleges, not four-year colleges.

“They saw an increase of about 25 percent of enrollment,” Malatras said. “We build at about 10 percent, because they also don’t have a robust (Tuition Assistance Program) like the state of New York already has, which allows many students to go to school tuition-free already.”

Another issue of debate during the hearing was the news that Cuomo’s budget proposal would strip state funding from private colleges if they do not keep tuition increases under $500 annually or under the higher education inflation rate, which is about 2.3 percent. On top of the free tuition proposal for public colleges, many private colleges are worried about the impact both proposals could have.

“In our strong suggestion that we treat all students equally, we are not suggesting in any way that the Excelsior Scholarship provide free tuition at our (private colleges),” Mary Beth Labate, president of the Commission of Independent Colleges and Universities, said during the hearing. “We’re simply saying, ‘Treat the students the same so that if you’re a similarly situated student, same economic profile, give that student the same amount of student money a student would get under Excelsior.’ …  It would be up to our private colleges and universities to compete for those students by putting together very robust financial aid packages.” 


– Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship

– Mayoral control of schools: Cuomo proposed extending this for three years, an increase on recent one-year extensions

– $10.4 million in funding proposed to support 3-year-old prekindergarten programs in 25 high-need school districts

– $35 million pilot program proposed to create 22,000 new after-school slots in high-need districts

– The governor’s budget proposal totals $25.6 billion for school aid