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Private schools sound warnings as free state tuition plan becomes law in NY

A plan from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to provide free tuition for qualifying families at SUNY and CUNY colleges is set to start this fall, eliciting divergent views from private and state school presidents.

The new state Excelsior Scholarship program, approved April 9 as part of the state’s 2018 budget, will cover the full cost of tuition at SUNY and CUNY universities as well as community colleges for students from families making $125,000 or less per year. The plan makes New York the first state to offer free tuition at both its two- and four-year colleges and universities.

Belinda S. Miles, president of Westchester Community College, said that the Valhalla school, along with community colleges statewide, is bracing for an influx of students. “The way I see it, the county’s most affordable college just got more affordable,” she said.

Miles added that the state program can help community colleges fill the demand for middle skill jobs, jobs that require more than a high school diploma but not a four-year degree.

Private not-for-profit colleges fear the influx of students to schools in the SUNY and CUNY systems could in return hurt their enrollment. Those concerns were highlighted in a report published in March by the Commission on Independent Colleges & Universities (CICU) in New York, a group that represents more than 100 private colleges and universities in the state. The report predicted that the plan could boost enrollment at New York’s public universities between 9 and 22 percent and decrease enrollment at private colleges and universities by between 7 and 15 percent.

“We’re very concerned that this new law takes a lot of choice out of the hands of students and their families in New York that they have previously had for many years and tilts the scale toward public institutions,” said Mercy College President Timothy L. Hall.

Robina C. Schepp, Pace University’s vice president for enrollment and placement, criticized the state’s program in an op-ed for Crain’s New York Business, saying it shuts out private universities with proven records of maximizing graduate earning power.

“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,” Schepp wrote.

Private college presidents in New York had pushed for the state to instead fund an expansion of the state’s Tuition Assistance Program from a maximum contribution of $5,000 per student to $6,500, along with increasing the maximum annual household income level from $85,000 to $125,000 to qualify.

Manhattanville College President Michael E. Geisler said students from lower-income families could actually have even less opportunity to advance than their wealthier counterparts under the program. While SUNY offers strong schools, he said, state schools alone cannot match the range of programs offered through both state and private schools.

“If this has the economic impact we are worried about — that a number of private schools might have to close — this will have a significant impact on the economy,” Geisler said. “But also over time…students from lower-and middle-income families will go to state schools and students coming from the upper one to five percent will go to the Harvards, Yales and Princetons. That will actually deepen the gap between the very high income and the middle and low income.”


The Excelsior Scholarship will pay whatever is left over after a student receives state and federal student aid dollars and scholarships.

The program will launch for the new college semester this fall. Families with gross household incomes of $100,000 annually or below will qualify immediately. The income threshold increases to $110,000 in 2018 and to $125,000 in 2019. Cuomo’s office estimates the program will cost $163 million once fully phased in.

Estimates from Cuomo’s office say nearly 940,000 families are eligible for the program in the state. Projections from the state budget director, reported by the Buffalo News, predict about 32,000 students would benefit once the income cap reaches $125,000 in 2019.

The program does have some strings attached. Students must be enrolled in college full-time and maintain a passing grade point average. They also have to have lived in the state for more than a year. The scholarship applies only to undergraduate studies.

There is also the caveat that providing free tuition does not provide free college. Tuition does not cover costs that come with annual fees, meal plans, books and housing.

The current tuition for SUNY four-year schools is $6,470 per academic year and $4,350 at two-year community colleges. SUNY estimates the direct cost of attendance at one of its four-year schools is about $20,700 per academic year. That estimate includes tuition, room and board and annual fees. It does not factor book costs, which SUNY says average $1,340 per year. The new state budget sets aside $8 million to help offset book costs for SUNY and CUNY students.

Perhaps most controversial in the Excelsior Scholarship is a provision that requires graduates who received Excelsior funding to remain in New York for a time equal to the length of the scholarship. If a student received state Excelsior funding for all four years he or she took to get a degree, that student must remain in New York for at least four more year after graduation. Otherwise, the scholarship converts into a loan.

Cuomo, who signed the Excelsior Scholarship bill into law on April 12, defended the provision in a recent conference call with newspaper editorial boards. “Why should New Yorkers pay for your college education and then you pick up and move to California?” he said.


Before the scholarship program starts in the fall, Miles said Westchester Community College will assess its current course offerings at its main and satellite campuses to prepare for what it believes could be a large growth in enrollment.

“Do we need to add more to our fall schedule? We have to balance supply and demand,” Miles said. “We will need to look at additional faculty to teach more sections if that becomes the outcome, as we are anticipating.”

Geisler said Manhattanville will have to work to advertise the range of programs the school can provide, as well as how it can offer aid to help keep tuition competitive.

“We will also have to increasingly recruit out-of-state students, because they are not subject to the same measures,” Geisler said. “That means we will not be serving as many New York state students as we have in the past.”

Hall said the Mercy College administration is working now with current and prospective students to show that tuition is already free for many qualifying students at Mercy. He said Mercy provides $20 million a year in financial aid.

“One of the things that we will think about is, how do we structure our financial aid?” Hall said. “Are there additional things we can do with our financial aid to make sure that students continue to receive value they chose Mercy College for in the first place?”

A spokesperson for SUNY Purchase College said the school was awaiting further details from the state on the program before commenting further, but provided the Business Journal a statement from school president Thomas J. Schwarz’s office.

“We’re supportive and excited about the governor’s initiative, which will increase access to higher education, help with retention and graduation and will relieve the burden of student debt,” the statement said. “We’re looking forward to receiving the details of how the program will work from HESC (Higher Education Services Corporation). We believe the Excelsior Scholarship will have an impact on a very large segment of our student population, but the extent of the impact depends on how the program will be implemented.”


  1. This whole thing spells T.R.O.U.B.L.E. Who’s going to PAY for all of this? I am not a NY resident, but isn’t NY one of the highest taxed states? The citizens of NY are taking one hell of a gamble. There is going to be an influx of students, and out of those students, how many do you think are going to invest in something OTHER THAN a Liberal Arts or Creative Arts degree? Seriously, degrees like these:


    are not going to cover the amount of debt that the state will incur.
    Coupled with the fact that these kids are shackled to NY for 2-4 years, there’s going to be A LOT of competition for instate jobs that simply aren’t there. If I was a NYorker in this situation, I’d move out.


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