Sen. Bernie Sanders was smiling while joining Gov. Andrew Cuomo at LaGuardia Community College Tuesday, to announce that free college tuition for the middle class — a cornerstone of Sanders’ presidential run — could become a reality in New York.
Cuomo’s plans to make all CUNY and SUNY schools tuition free for students whose families earn up to $125,000 a year. In what the governor said is a first of its kind in the country, the Excelsior Scholarship initiative would be applicable to about 1 million households with college-bound children. It’s projected to be phased in this year, if approved by the state legislature.
“It’s once again New York leading the way…To say, if you really want to be competitive globally, we have to have the best educated workforce,” Cuomo said, adding that average student debt in the state is $30,000. “The debt is so high it’s like starting a race with an anchor tied to your leg.”
Sanders beamed: “it’s an idea that is going to reverberate not only throughout the state of New York, but throughout this country.”
Scholars and officials are hailing the proposal as a step towards equitable higher education.
“People who work on improving education have been pretty down lately — because it just doesn’t look like the incoming president has much thought on these matters,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, told Metro.
“New York is exactly the kind of place we would hope to see this,” she said, because of its unprecedented political support for such measures and its financial resources. “We need New York to try this and help us learn from this, so when we have a chance at the federal level we have a better of sense of what will work.”
In the 1970s, CUNY experimented with free tuition for about four years, and a 30-year study of its impact revealed incredible outcomes.
“Not only did it change the lives of women in particular, but of their children when they went on to have them,” Goldrick-Rab said.
Free tuition would relieve students who must work while studying in order to meet their expenses, said CUNY School of Education’s interim dean Gretchen Johnson.
“They’re always on edge to actually afford school," she said. "And it’s very difficult to graduate on time if you have to work 20 hours a week or more. This would speed of graduations.”
Johnson said the financial burden is especially acute for students in her department. Students who need to fulfill a student teaching requirement are often forced to quit their jobs, she said.
However, some see unintended consequences and hidden complexities in the free-tuition initiative.
Bart Astor, author of “Graduate from College Debt-free,” told Metro that by Federal Student Aid standards, a $125,000-income family with no other assets is deemed able to afford about $20,000 a year in tuition.
“It’s a great message, but who’s paying? You have to be aware of the fallout from taxpayers who are subsidizing families who could already afford to pay for some or all of their tuition anyway,” he said, adding that there are plenty of ways people could fudge the numbers to appear eligible for free tuition.