Schooled Reporting on education

New York’s ‘free tuition’ gamble

Education | More than half of students at state colleges and universities now pay nothing to attend class
by Leigh Jones
Posted 10/04/17, 01:17 pm

More than a month after most college students sat through their first lecture of the year, the New York governor’s office released details about how many of them are doing it for free.

About 400,000 students attend schools in the State University of New York and City University of New York systems, and just a little more than half of them—53 percent—do not pay any tuition. That number got a bump this year after Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched the Excelsior Scholarship program.

The state grant will help cover tuition costs for 22,000 students in its first year, according to the latest numbers from the governor’s office. Each grant recipient got about $4,000 on average to use at the state’s public universities. The governor touted the numbers as proof of the importance the state places on higher education.

“A college degree now is what a high school diploma was 30 years ago—it is essential to succeed in today’s economy,” Cuomo said in a statement Sunday.

Fellow Democrats swooned over Cuomo’s program, the first of its kind in the nation for four-year universities. But education experts greeted the news with much less enthusiasm.

The chief complaint stems from the program’s structure as a “last dollar” grant, meaning it only covers what existing state and federal grants don’t pay for. That provides the most benefit to middle-class students, whose parents make too much money to qualify them for programs designed to benefit low-income families. The Excelsior Scholarship is open to families that make up to $100,000 now, and in two years the cap will rise to $125,000. This year’s grants will cost state taxpayers $87 million, and budget analysts expect it to nearly double, to $163 million, by 2019.

Cuomo could have made much better use of that money, argued Beth Akers, a higher education policy analyst with the Manhattan Institute.

“When it comes to getting low-income students into and through college, it’s the overall cost of attending college that creates a barrier, not just the tuition bill,” she wrote in January, shortly after Cuomo announced the program. “Low-income students enroll in college at lower rates than their well-off peers, and those who do enroll have lower rates of success at completing their degree. So while helping middle-income families afford college is a laudable goal, it’s difficult to justify it when a gap remains for the neediest students that seems to be preventing them from making needed gains in academic achievement.”

Cuomo likes to use the “free college tuition” buzzwords, but the Excelsior Scholarship doesn’t make college free. State schools charge about $6,470 in tuition, but the total cost for books, food, and housing drives the real bill up to about $25,110.

And the influx of “free” money into the market doesn’t create any incentive for New York’s public universities to bring down tuition costs. With so many more students incentivized to attend a public university, Akers argued the schools could become more selective in who they admit, further reducing opportunity for students coming from low-performing high schools in poorer areas.

A recent study out of England bears that out. After the U.K. government reinstituted university fees, it had more money available to cover non-tuition expenses, reimbursing more of needy students’ out-of-pocket costs. When colleges couldn’t charge tuition, it also forced them to cap the number of students admitted, benefiting wealthier students, the study found.

New York’s Excelsior Scholarship has also put the squeeze on the state’s robust private school sector, which awarded 51 percent of bachelor degrees and 72 percent of master’s degrees in the state during the 2014–15 school year. In March, the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities urged state lawmakers to reject the Excelsior Scholarship program, which it estimated could cause a private school enrollment drop of as much as 15 percent. Such a major shift will have ripple effects across the state economy, the commission warned.

Deana Porterfield, president of Roberts Wesleyan College, an evangelical university in Rochester, N.Y., said her institution provided more than $114 million in local economic benefit, including 830 jobs.

“It is hard to imagine the negative economic impact across the state if all 100-plus independent institutions saw dramatic shifts in enrollment and employment,” she said. “New York can continue to be a leader in higher education by reinforcing the strong historical partnerships by supporting both public and private institutions, and student choice across the state.”

Associated Press/Photo by Maria Danilova Associated Press/Photo by Maria Danilova Protesters at Harvard University demonstrate during Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ on-campus speech last Thursday.

A polite, Ivy League protest

Students at Harvard University protested Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ visit to the Cambridge, Mass., campus last week to deliver a speech on school choice. Students waved signs or held up their fists to express outrage at DeVos’ apparently radical proposition: “The future of school choice does not begin with a new federal mandate from Washington.”

At least the students protested politely, opting not to shout down or interrupt the presentation at Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. DeVos stuck to familiar themes, reiterating the importance of state education innovation and the minimal role the federal government has to play.

“We can amplify the voices of those who only want better for their kids,” she said. “We can assist states who are working to further empower parents, and urge those who haven’t.”

Shortly before last week’s speech, DeVos announced $253 million in federal Every Student Succeeds Act grants to expand charter schools. The Education Department divided the award among nine states, two state agencies, and more than 20 nonprofit charter management organizations.

While the Trump administration has drawn a lot of attention to voucher and tax credit programs to help fund private school choice, public charter schools still offer the most widespread choice option in the country, with most schools maintaining long waiting lists. DeVos wants to help clear that backlog by encouraging states to authorize new charter schools, an expansion teachers’ unions and public school backers vehemently oppose. —L.J.

Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin Second grade student Jimmy Hart at Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, Va.

Forgetting the past?

Public school students in Virginia will no longer have to take standardized tests in history, a decision that has one Washington Post commentator lamenting the emphasis on more “practical” subjects. State education officials say killing the test, on which students always did poorly, will free teachers to impart meaningful knowledge, rather than focus on ensuring students know the right answers to a set of test questions. But students still must take federally mandated tests in English, math, and science, raising questions about whether the tests are really the problem. Post writer Jay Matthews argued that students need more tests, not fewer. Advocating against forcing educators to teach to a test is “a healthy attitude, but it does little to arrest the American tendency to make high school as easy as possible for average students,” Matthews wrote. “Students and their parents tend to complain about hard work.” —L.J.

Textbook ripple effect

Gay rights groups are lobbying the California Department of Education to expand LGBT influence over textbooks set for review this year. In 2011, California mandated students learn about the historical contributions of those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. During a state commission hearing last week, advocacy groups insisted that simply mentioning historical figures wouldn’t cut it. They want each person’s orientation and relationship status outlined in specific detail. “It’s not something to appease a particular part of the population but to truly include inclusive history throughout grades K-8,” said Renata Moreira, executive director of San Francisco–based LGBT adocacy group Our Family Coalition. Their success will have a ripple effect: California is the biggest market for textbooks and publishers peddle books crafted for California elsewhere. —L.J.

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.

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