CUNY and the Return of “Free” Tuition

BY AARON BARLOW

Will New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “free” college tuition plan have much positive impact on the City University of New York (CUNY), the massive system where I teach? I doubt it; it’s really not much more than repackaging of programs already in existence. And, as David Brooks points out in The New York Times, it is an example of politicians acting when they “just haven’t thought things through.” The plan will have to change if it is going to make a positive difference.

Brooks lists eight things he finds wrong with Cuomo’s plan. Though I agree that there’s plenty wrong with it, I find that Brooks’ thinking doesn’t cover the whole of the situation any more than that of the state’s politicians, and Brooks provides no remedies for the flaws in the plan (other than an unspoken argument for repeal):

  1. Brooks finds the law “regressive,” equating it to tax schemes of that name. The lowest-income students, he claims, already have their tuition covered. “The higher up the income scale you go,” he writes, “the more you benefit.” That may be; there are now plenty of hidden costs to lower-income students that ought to be alleviated by the new system but aren’t. The current programs can be a nightmare for many students and can leave them in debt and out of college without a degree. I deal with this daily in my role as an advisor. Were the new program to work well, it would take care of such problems. It won’t, but that’s not because it’s akin to a tax system. Though “regressive” is an inappropriate word to use here, Brooks’ point has merit.
  2. The second point on Brooks’ list is also significant. The costs that Brooks calls “fees,” “living expenses, textbooks and travel,” certainly can drive students from college (though textbooks are covered in large part for many low-income students by the current Tuition Assistance Program or TAP). This is a major weakness of the governor’s program. Calling something “free” that people cannot afford to take is disingenuous, at best.
  3. Brooks is concerned, as am I, that the plan forces a lock-step progression toward graduation and only on a full-time basis. Even with “free” tuition, few of my students (see point 2) can afford to go to college full-time and on a pace for 4-year (or 2-year, for associate-degree programs) graduation. They have to work, to care for children (or, more often than you might think, elderly relatives or younger siblings) and must catch up in areas where their secondary-school education has failed them. The new program, as far as I understand it, takes little of this into account.
  4. This point makes me scratch my head: Brooks claims that “research has shown that students who have to work to pay some college costs, even if only small expenses, are more spurred to graduate.” I think that research did not include the colleges attended by the children of most of Brooks’ friends and colleagues, few of whom are paying their own way—and the vast majority of whom graduate and go on to receive advanced degrees. This is a classist argument that conveniently leaves out motivations of students of privilege. From my perspective, there are many better ways of motivating students to stay in school than making them feel they have a financial investment. The first, and most important, is providing expert advising and counselling that helps students develop a vision of their present situation and their future possibilities, that helps students set goals for themselves that make sense in terms of their current travails. When students know why they are doing something, and endorse that reason, they continue the work.
  5. Given the vast difference in tuition between CUNY (and even SUNY) and private colleges already, Brooks’ fifth point, that “Cuomo’s law threatens to destroy some of New York’s private colleges,” makes no sense. If students and their parents looked only at cost, they would already be flocking to the state schools. But, as Brooks himself says, “these private colleges tend to have smaller classes, they tend to do a better job of graduating their students and they tend to spend heavily to subsidize poorer students.” This, though not even completely true, tends to contradict his earlier statement: If the value of private colleges is indeed higher, families are not going to abandon them simply to save a few bucks. Leaving aside class size and subsidies for poorer students, it’s certainly a questionable argument to claim that small colleges do a better job of graduating their students. Graduation rates depend on factors far beyond what the colleges themselves do, many of them relating to economic realities of the moment and family responsibilities, not to mention the differing levels of preparation for college one finds between students at private colleges and, most certainly, CUNY.
  6. Brooks next makes the questionable claim that “the law may widen the gap between rich and poor.” He thinks that more of the richer high-school graduates will start attending CUNY and SUNY, pushing out “students with lower credentials, who tend to be from more disadvantaged homes.” As long as richer families are able to pay for private education, they will. Saving money is not the prime motivator for choosing your child’s path to the future. Besides that, CUNY already has a spectrum of campuses from community colleges through its Grad Center. A student who doesn’t initially get into Hunter College can attend Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), earn an AA there and transfer easily (if they have the grades) into Hunter for a baccalaureate program. The system is built in such a way that it allows students to start at a level appropriate to their educational background and preparation and move up. There are, as one would expect, serious problems with the system as it stands now, but more students clamoring to attend Hunter, Baruch, Brooklyn and City is not going to push students away from BMCC, Kingsborough, Guttman, LaGuardia, Bronx, Queensborough or Hostos.
  7. If Brooks believes that reductions in state support of higher education hurts the state systems (and it does), he should be arguing from increased support instead of simply bemoaning the fact that “education get squeezed” as states try to cut back. Instead, he is arguing that the state might reduce support because of Cuomo’s law, therefore, the law is bad. That’s like saying we shouldn’t fund hospitals because funding may be cut in the future—and it’s not much of an argument.
  8. One of the most ridiculous aspects of the law, both Brooks and I agree, is the requirement that graduates remain in New York for four years—or see their “free” tuition turn into a loan. This program should be for people who are from New York, not a program forcing people to stay in New York. That sort of social engineering will do no one any good, especially here, where graduates will “be trapped in a state with one really expensive city, and other regions where good jobs are scarce.”

Brooks sees the law as “counterproductive.” I see it as flawed, but as an opening for creation of something better. My immediate concern is the meantime: How are we going to handle the students who can’t possible go to school full-time (that is, taking the 30 credits a year enabling graduation in 2 or 4 years, depending on the type of program). The current TAP requirements allow students to progress at a somewhat slower rate of 24 credits a year, something absolutely necessary for many of the students I advise. Forcing them to take more classes for the sake of speeding up graduation rates will only increase, instead, the percentage of drop-outs.

What the law needs is, first of all, more flexibility on the individual campuses. Colleges cannot continue to be constantly looking over their shoulders toward Albany as they work to provide the best education possible for their particular student populations. The dread that administrations in CUNY and SUNY now feel over the possibility of a TAP audit will only grow as the state increases restrictions and oversight with its new program, as it inevitably will. Financial-aid related bureaucracies are already too large and centered too little on student needs. As it is, this law will make the situation even worse. Second, the requirement for residency after graduation needs to be lifted. New York’s problems cannot be solved by forcing people to live here. And, third, the law needs increased funding for SUNY and CUNY attached to it, so that the education provided can continue to improve instead of stagnating or going downhill because of a changed financial environment.

With changes, genuine free tuition at New York’s public colleges and universities can become a reality and a positive force for the improvement of the state. As it stands now, the law will simply make a muddled situation even worse.

4 thoughts on “CUNY and the Return of “Free” Tuition

    • Good point, Ron Howell. LIU is more unstable financially than most private colleges. However, it does have strong programs that the state schools can’t compete with and has been attracting students in the face of much cheaper CUNY for quite some time.

  1. Let’s start with a stipulation or two. Mr. Barlow is employed by the institution that he argues needs or deserves more tax dollars. This is fair enough. As a business owner I argue for less taxes on my company all the time in order to increase my profits and competitiveness vis-a-vis lesser taxed foreign competitors. I also stipulate that he sounds like a very honorable, knowledgeable and sincerely motivated public servant in the education field. That being said, he sounds like a typical bureaucrat plumping for a bigger budget to increase opportunities in his particular bureaucracy. Who is to say more income for his bureaucracy of higher learning is better for the general weal? Or even perhaps better for the outcome of his bureaucracy? He admits that many students enter the college level unprepared by the secondary-school system, “…must catch up in areas where their secondary-school education has failed them.” Is this not an argument that it’s at least possible the problem is not so much the lack of resources for the higher education level but for improving secondary education thus alleviating the need to provide makeup courses. And surely the argument for improving secondary-school levels is not only about more funds. It is a fact that in the US we spend significantly more resources per pupil than all other G-7 schools with significantly poorer outcomes. This fact raises the question made by some that we may be unrealistically raising the standard for success in our society by promoting the necessity of a four year baccalaureate degree for everyone . Surely it is arguable that we don’t do many young people favors by creating undemanding curriculum in order that they may graduate with a college degree.

    I would also take issue with Mr Barlow’s point that having some skin in the game is not a motivating factor for students in higher education outcomes. Here he uses the example of “privileged” students having skin in the game only by virtue of their parents wealth, manage to graduate on time and are presumably are also motivated to achieve. This argument overlooks the strong influence of parents on their “privileged” offspring, which from person experience can be a powerful motivator.

    • Your last paragraph, Philip Sargent, makes my point. Better motivation than money comes from people. For some, family; for others, teachers and counselors. As to your other arguments, well, it simply comes down to this: You get what you pay for (and I speak from experience: I owned and ran and store and cafe in Brooklyn for 14 years in addition to my decade with CUNY). We all want (and benefit from) good higher education. We all need to pay for it.

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