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Test-lab states: New York's groundbreaking plan for free college

All students whose families make less than $125,000 a year would be eligible to attend New York state colleges for free. It suggests that a time of state experimentation might be ahead.  

Mary Altaffer/AP
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (right) and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders appear during an event at LaGuardia Community College Tuesday in New York.

For thousands of New York students, the new year may bring a huge gift: free college.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the proposal, which would make the Empire State the first in the nation to offer free tuition to any four-year state university or community college to anyone whose family earns less than $125,000 a year.

The announcement Tuesday, coming on the first official business day of 2017, was another clear signal that Democratic states like New York would be aggressively taking up the kind of liberal ideas that made Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, the darling of the left last year. In fact, Senator Sanders, who made free tuition a central plank of his presidential campaign, joined Governor Cuomo for the announcement, calling it a “revolutionary idea” that would “reverberate not only throughout the state of New York, but throughout this country.”

With Republicans poised to take control of all three branches of the federal government as of Jan. 20, Democrats have turned to state and local efforts not only to protect the environment and the rights of immigrants and shore up health-care provisions, but also to address issues middle class Americans believe are locking them out of the future, such as the country’s growing price tag on higher education.

As student debt – at $1.2 trillion nationwide and counting – surpassed credit card debt as the second largest source of consumer debt, making college more affordable has become an urgent concern.

“But the question is, how much can states do now, really, without federal help?” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy at Temple University in Philadelphia. “The reason that’s such a big question: The feds play such a very large role in the financing of higher education,” from the Pell Grant program to federally subsidized student loans.

Yet Professor Goldrick-Rab, author of 2016’s “Paying the Price,” also notes that for many people, especially Republicans, this is exactly how new policy ideas should germinate. “These policies should be developed from the grassroots level – states should be the incubators of these experiments, before the federal level,” she says.

Tennessee Promise

In fact, Tennessee, a Republican state, rolled out its own free tuition experiment in 2015 with its “Tennessee Promise” program, becoming the first state to make community college free for all graduating seniors. The program, which simply required eight hours of community service from students, also supplemented existing federal and state grants. Last fall, about 15,000 students took advantage of the program, and the number of those attending college straight out of high school grew 15 percent. 

States such as Oregon, Washington, and Minnesota have also offered some kinds of free tuition programs, and the Obama administration’s “Heads Up America” programs has helped localities find ways to expand tuition assistance.

When Governor Cuomo made the announcement Tuesday, he couldn’t help but engage in some inter-borough banter with the Brooklyn-born senator.

“I am an old Queens boy,” Cuomo told a crowd at LaGuardia Community College in his home borough, noting how as a kid there had always been various rivalries with kids from Brooklyn and the Bronx. Looking back at Sanders, he quipped, “And I think Brooklyn was always a little bit jealous of Queens, to tell you the truth.”

Yet the point, he said as many in the audience laughed, was that both he and Sanders were “outer borough” kids, which always meant “you were from the middle class, you were working men and women, you were new immigrants, you were just starting.”

'A fair shot at success'

For Cuomo and Sanders, free college tuition is now an extension of the basic idea that the country should provide all of its citizens with an education. A high school diploma, in the modern economy, is simply no longer enough.

In the past, “you could run a machine or drive a truck and you would be just fine,” Cuomo said. “But those days are over. In this economy, you need a college education if you’re going to compete.” Of the nearly 8 million jobs currently in New York, he said, 70 percent require a college education.

“The rule of the game was, everybody has a fair shot at success, that is America,” he said. “Take that away, you take away the spirit and the values that made this country this country.”

With average student loans in New York about $30,000 per student, he said, “the debt is so high it’s like starting a race with an anchor tied to your legs.”

New York’s proposal, called the Excelsior Scholarship, would supplement existing state and federal grants and loans for hundreds of thousands of New York college students, allowing any member of a family earning less than $125,000 to attend a state four-year or community college for free.

How much will it cost?

Cuomo, known as a moderate, fiscally conservative Democrat, said he hoped to roll out free-tuition scholarships beginning this fall. His proposal must first be approved by the state legislature, however, including the Republican-controlled Senate.

New York already provides about $1 billion in support for needy students through its Tuition Assistance Program, and the Cuomo administration estimated that the Excelsior Scholarships would cost about $163 million more, depending on participation. 

Goldrick-Rab notes that a significant number of voters who supported President-elect Donald Trump were part of the white working class without college degrees. “But it’s wrong to assume that they didn’t want college,” she says. “They didn’t get to go to college, and they are [ticked] off, they are frustrated that they have been locked out of the pathway for upward mobility.”

The president-elect offered few concrete proposals for education during the campaign, but in September he said he would work with Congress to encourage colleges and universities to use their tax-free “multibillion-dollar endowments” to help students with tuition and debt — or risk losing federal tax breaks. Some institutions, such as Harvard and Stanford Universities, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Bowdoin College in Maine, already provide free tuition to families who make less than a certain amount per year.

“The students are choking on those loans,” Trump said. “They can't pay them back. Before they start, they're in trouble. And it's something I hear more and more and it's one of the things I hear more than anything else.”

On Tuesday in New York, Sanders said Cuomo’s free tuition proposal was “revolutionary,” and “a message that will provide hope and optimism for working class families all across the state.”

“And if New York state does it this year,” he continued, “mark my words, state after state will follow.” 

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