Our Views: ‘Free tuition’ good politics, bad law

The Island Now

As a talking point in a potential run for president in 2020, the bill recently signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo for “tuition-free college for the middle class” makes a lot of sense.

But as a way of making college affordable for everyone in New York State, it is a cruel hoax aiding just a small number of New Yorkers and even then with harmful strings attached.

Yes, the Excelsior Scholarship provides free tuition to students from families making up to $125,000 a year (by 2019).

But it only applies to students who attend the State University of New York or the City University of New York.

Why not private colleges and universities?

In fact, thanks to a review process that appears to have had little or no oversight from the state Legislature it is unclear whether the state’s 150 private colleges and universities will lose students to CUNY or SUNY.

Or if in the long run the finances of SUNY and CUNY will be hurt by having to rely on students’ tuition.

The program’s income limits also leave many people out.

According to The New York Times, one legislative estimate said a program called “outrageously ambitious” will reach only about 32,000 students.

Those not included are part-time students who make up a large portion of the community college population and poor students, who are expected to use the state’s Tutition Assistance Program or Pell Grants or other aid.

The Excelsior Scholarship also does not cover room and board — the cost that is keeping many poor students out of college.

But it does pay for tuition for New Yorkers who make double the state’s median income.

The law will also hurt its recipients.

Students who receive free tuition for four years have to remain in New York for four years after graduating, or pay the money back.

Somebody offers the student more money out of state? Too bad, unless you want to repay the free tuition.

This is a stupendously bad idea that is sure to catch the attention of state legislatures across the county — to the disadvantage of college graduates everywhere.

The program, like the rest of the state budget, also fails to address the many students who are unprepared for college after graduating from public schools in New York.

Fewer than half of the African-American and Hispanic students in New York public colleges graduate within six years.

Virtually untouched in the budget are the wide disparities between school districts in school spending per pupil under an education system mostly financed by property taxes.

Under this system, spending for students in wealthier districts almost without exception exceeds those of students from poor districts.

Which means that more money is spent on white students and less on African-American and Hispanic students.

We’ll leave it up to the reader to determine whether this is intentional or not.

This disparity is not helped by the state-mandated tax cap. In fact, just the opposite.

By requiring 60 percent of the public to approve increases in the tax levy above the state tax cap, poor districts are less like to bridge the gap in spending.

We have many concerns about charter schools.

But we understand well the desire of parents from poor districts who want to find an alternative to the under-resourced, underperforming schools where they often are forced to send their children. The first few years of school can seal the fate of a child’s performance in school and well beyond.

State Senate Republicans, many of whom owe their victories to millions of dollars from hedge-fund-supported pro-charter-school political action committees, have pressed to increase the number of charter schools in the state.

Like charter schools or not, this budget is a great argument in the Republicans’ favor.

The idea of free tuition was first made popular by Bernie Sanders in his run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and then picked up by Hillary Clinton, the eventual nominee.

We think the idea has much merit.

But what Cuomo has produced does not.

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