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Gov. Andrew Cuomo's potential path to the White House appears to so far be paved with good intentions gone misunderstood. No sooner did his national headline-grabbing legislation, to make state and city colleges tuition-free, pass in the Legislature...

The real purpose of Cuomo's free-college-tuition plan

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's potential path to the White House appears to so far be paved with good intentions gone misunderstood. No sooner did his national headline-grabbing legislation, to make state and city colleges tuition-free, pass in the Legislature...

The real purpose of Cuomo's free-college-tuition plan

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's potential path to the White House appears to so far be paved with good intentions gone misunderstood. No sooner did his national headline-grabbing legislation, to make state and city colleges tuition-free, pass in the Legislature than the fine print began bedeviling New Yorkers.

Students from households earning up to $100,000 a year learned that the break will kick in only after other financial-aid options are exhausted. Those who work and go to school part time, which describes roughly 90% of community-college students, discovered that they would not be eligible for the program at all. Anyone who would qualify for the benefit, meanwhile, realized they would have to pay it back if they failed to graduate within four years. Then there’s the requirement that recipients work in-state for up to four years after college, a provision Assemblyman James Skoufis said he wanted to scrap. And budget hawks can’t help but wonder whether the Legislature would ever give the State University of New York the right to raise tuition, as it had hoped, now that the state itself would be on the hook, to the tune of $163 million, to pay for it?

What the critics fail to understand, proponents say, is that although the governor has used the bill as his foray into the national debate over the cost of higher education, the entitlement is structured not so much to make college free but to create an incentive for students to graduate on time. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, four in 10 New York public college students earn degrees in four years, while six in 10 graduate within six. Students will have to take 30 credits per calendar—not academic—year, which supporters say is ample time to carry a full course load and keep working. “College was not supposed to take seven years,” Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s chief of staff, told Crain’s. “One reason why students rack up so much debt is that college takes longer than it should.” 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's potential path to the White House appears to so far be paved with good intentions gone misunderstood. No sooner did his national headline-grabbing legislation, to make state and city colleges tuition-free, pass in the Legislature than the fine print began bedeviling New Yorkers.

Students from households earning up to $100,000 a year learned that the break will kick in only after other financial-aid options are exhausted. Those who work and go to school part time, which describes roughly 90% of community-college students, discovered that they would not be eligible for the program at all. Anyone who would qualify for the benefit, meanwhile, realized they would have to pay it back if they failed to graduate within four years. Then there’s the requirement that recipients work in-state for up to four years after college, a provision Assemblyman James Skoufis said he wanted to scrap. And budget hawks can’t help but wonder whether the Legislature would ever give the State University of New York the right to raise tuition, as it had hoped, now that the state itself would be on the hook, to the tune of $163 million, to pay for it?

What the critics fail to understand, proponents say, is that although the governor has used the bill as his foray into the national debate over the cost of higher education, the entitlement is structured not so much to make college free but to create an incentive for students to graduate on time. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, four in 10 New York public college students earn degrees in four years, while six in 10 graduate within six. Students will have to take 30 credits per calendar—not academic—year, which supporters say is ample time to carry a full course load and keep working. “College was not supposed to take seven years,” Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s chief of staff, told Crain’s. “One reason why students rack up so much debt is that college takes longer than it should.” 

A version of this article appears in the April 17, 2017, print issue of Crain's New York Business.

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