Editorial: Give the free tuition plan a shot

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You have to give Gov. Andrew Cuomo credit sometimes. While he is controversial, he does come up with a lot of ideas and is not afraid to execute them. OK, StartUp New York didn’t work out so great, but the free college tuition plan — essentially the state making up the difference for state students to get a no-cost education, if their parents earn less than $125,000 a year, and if they don’t qualify for complete coverage with other forms of aid, as long as they attend a SUNY or CUNY college, graduate on time and don’t live on campus — is exactly the right remedy at the right time. Kudos, guv!

It’s those people who earn between $80,000 and $125,000 in the state who often feel the playing field is unfair. They pay a similar income tax rate as richer people, own homes and thus pay property taxes, like richer people, and have costs associated with working and commuting, but get few if any of the benefits of poorer people. These are the people who would benefit the most under this plan (those earning less would also get tuition covered, but this hasn’t been as much of a problem with the current FAFSA plan). So middle-earners are the ones who often have to take out student loans, adding to their burdens. The Cuomo plan would give the people who are the lifeblood of the state’s economy some deserved relief.

Yes, this will make SUNY and CUNY four-year colleges harder to get into, as applications rise, and, thus, some weaker applicants may cry foul. But everyone, in the long run, benefits from having more competitive colleges. Failed applicants can always take the community college transfer route to a four-year SUNY or CUNY.

The state’s four-year private colleges are also crying foul. They fear their applicant pools will shrink as people instead apply to public colleges. Free is free, after all. As well, the Cuomo plan threatens to take state aid away from private colleges that raise their tuition faster than the rate of inflation. That said, in this day and age, such colleges are already hurting and their raising tuition is not the answer. As for usurping students, wouldn’t that already be the case? SUNY/CUNY schools now are more competitive and far less expensive than many private schools — especially for those who don’t qualify for much aid, like the people Cuomo is targeting. The private colleges will continue to exist, as long as they have a good product and market well. (Shameless web-only plug: Maybe they should advertise in community college newspapers and go after the SUNY/CUNY transfer market?)

New York is losing its best and brightest people — either college grads, who go out of state to college and don’t come back, or their hardworking parents, who earn a tad under $125,000 a year and feel like they are getting little for the high taxes they pay. Free SUNY/CUNY educations are a great perk.

Can the state pay for it? While that seems to be what’s being debated in our legislature right now, surely there are some wasteful programs that can be cut. Cuomo’s free SUNY/CUNY tuition plan is not wasteful; it’s an investment in its people. It will be revolutionary, save future generations from the absurd avalanche of student loans current grads suffer and keep our best and brightest right here, where they can revitalize our cities and expand the tax base. What are critics afraid of?

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