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Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s pro
posal to create a tuition-free degree program, the Excelsior Scholarship, scores points for good intentions. But its one-size-fits-all approach carries hidden costs with lifelong implications and ignores critical student...

The problem 
with free tuition

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s pro
posal to create a tuition-free degree program, the Excelsior Scholarship, scores points for good intentions. But its one-size-fits-all approach carries hidden costs with lifelong implications and ignores critical student...

The problem 
with free tuition

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s pro
posal to create a tuition-free degree program, the Excelsior Scholarship, scores points for good intentions. But its one-size-fits-all approach carries hidden costs with lifelong implications and ignores critical student needs.

Under the plan, the state would cover tuition costs at state and city universities for students whose families earn up to $125,000 per year. Amid widespread debate about the value of higher education and the growing burden of student debt, that would seem welcome news. Yet, as is so often the case with anything marketed as “free,” the governor’s plan comes with sobering costs that make its fine print required reading for anyone considering enrolling in college.

Tuition is just one of many expenses incurred in earning a college degree. Housing, books, meal plans and transportation frequently rival or exceed the cost of tuition. None of those are covered under the Excelsior Scholarship. Taking a job to pay those bills would be difficult because the scholarship requires students to carry at least 15 credits. The alternative is piling on the very debt from which Excelsior seeks to save them.

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Of greatest concern is that the governor’s proposal excludes private, nonprofit colleges and universities. Not only does that limit the choices for students seeking the best fit in terms of size, setting, location and cost, but it also closes the door on New York schools with a proven record of maximizing graduates’ earning power, without regard to socioeconomic status.

Private, nonprofit schools must remain an option for anyone considering a college education. Pace University’s academic model produces great outcomes for our graduates, and a 2017 study ranked Pace first in New York and second in the nation at moving students from the bottom of the income scale to the top 20%. Yet the governor’s proposal excludes Pace and more than 100 other private colleges and universities in the state.

When free tuition comes at the expense of attending a school that may offer a better fit and superior career opportunities that lead to decades of higher earnings, it erases the very appeal of the Excelsior Scholarship. Add to that the prospect of still having to work or take on debt to cover costs other than tuition. Proponents of the college affordability plan have not acknowledged these inconsistencies.

Excelsior also has the potential to overburden the SUNY and CUNY systems with students. That would promise future management dilemmas for state leaders as well as cost surges borne by taxpayers and would erode the quality of education students receive—making the students less competitive and less employable.

Cuomo recognizes the value of higher education and its vital role in the lives of young people, but Excelsior mistakes eliminating the cost of tuition for successful fulfillment of the academic objective. The purpose of higher education is to empower young people to realize their potential. In waiving tuition at the expense of educational choice and all the benefits of private schools, the governor’s plan would hinder earning potential and career success for generations of students to come.

If affordability is the goal, Cuomo should expand state financial aid by increasing awards and extending the income ceiling for the Tuition Assistance Program, which already covers full tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools for the lowest-income students. By expanding TAP and proven programs such as the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program, the Science and Technology Entry Program and the Liberty Partnerships Program and by creating a new program of graduate tuition assistance, New York can make college accessible while preserving educational choice. 

Robina C. Schepp is vice president 
of enrollment management at 
Pace University.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s pro
posal to create a tuition-free degree program, the Excelsior Scholarship, scores points for good intentions. But its one-size-fits-all approach carries hidden costs with lifelong implications and ignores critical student needs.

Under the plan, the state would cover tuition costs at state and city universities for students whose families earn up to $125,000 per year. Amid widespread debate about the value of higher education and the growing burden of student debt, that would seem welcome news. Yet, as is so often the case with anything marketed as “free,” the governor’s plan comes with sobering costs that make its fine print required reading for anyone considering enrolling in college.

Tuition is just one of many expenses incurred in earning a college degree. Housing, books, meal plans and transportation frequently rival or exceed the cost of tuition. None of those are covered under the Excelsior Scholarship. Taking a job to pay those bills would be difficult because the scholarship requires students to carry at least 15 credits. The alternative is piling on the very debt from which Excelsior seeks to save them.

Of greatest concern is that the governor’s proposal excludes private, nonprofit colleges and universities. Not only does that limit the choices for students seeking the best fit in terms of size, setting, location and cost, but it also closes the door on New York schools with a proven record of maximizing graduates’ earning power, without regard to socioeconomic status.

Private, nonprofit schools must remain an option for anyone considering a college education. Pace University’s academic model produces great outcomes for our graduates, and a 2017 study ranked Pace first in New York and second in the nation at moving students from the bottom of the income scale to the top 20%. Yet the governor’s proposal excludes Pace and more than 100 other private colleges and universities in the state.

When free tuition comes at the expense of attending a school that may offer a better fit and superior career opportunities that lead to decades of higher earnings, it erases the very appeal of the Excelsior Scholarship. Add to that the prospect of still having to work or take on debt to cover costs other than tuition. Proponents of the college affordability plan have not acknowledged these inconsistencies.

Excelsior also has the potential to overburden the SUNY and CUNY systems with students. That would promise future management dilemmas for state leaders as well as cost surges borne by taxpayers and would erode the quality of education students receive—making the students less competitive and less employable.

Cuomo recognizes the value of higher education and its vital role in the lives of young people, but Excelsior mistakes eliminating the cost of tuition for successful fulfillment of the academic objective. The purpose of higher education is to empower young people to realize their potential. In waiving tuition at the expense of educational choice and all the benefits of private schools, the governor’s plan would hinder earning potential and career success for generations of students to come.

If affordability is the goal, Cuomo should expand state financial aid by increasing awards and extending the income ceiling for the Tuition Assistance Program, which already covers full tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools for the lowest-income students. By expanding TAP and proven programs such as the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program, the Science and Technology Entry Program and the Liberty Partnerships Program and by creating a new program of graduate tuition assistance, New York can make college accessible while preserving educational choice. 

Robina C. Schepp is vice president 
of enrollment management at 
Pace University.

A version of this article appears in the April 10, 2017, print issue of Crain's New York Business.

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