Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a plan last Tuesday that would grant free tuition to any New Yorker accepted to a state or city college as long as they or their family earn less than $125,000 a year. It’s a move seen by many political observers as designed to put Cuomo in the driver’s’ seat of the Democratic Party’s agenda, and seize on a policy issue that resonated with voters during the 2016 presidential campaign. Cuomo announced his plan alongside former contender for the Democratic presidential nomination Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) who focused heavily on free college tuition on the campaign trail. Sanders’ former rival Hillary Clinton gave her support to Cuomo’s proposal on Twitter.
The backing of Sanders and Clinton is a boost to Cuomo’s national stature–he’s said repeatedly that he plans to run for governor again in 2018 and is not set on a presidential bid in 2020. But Cuomo has made a series of moves that have garnered him national attention, and he’s touted these moves–such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, paid family leave and the gradual implementation of a $15 minimum wage in New York City–as examples to be followed by the nation.
Cuomo’s announcement earned him national attention and praise from a good deal of education and student groups, but many legislators and policy analysts say the governor hasn’t provided enough details to determine whether the plan is realistic. The Governor’s office estimated the cost of the program will be $163 million a year by 2019, but a number of experts and legislators say that number is far too low. E.J. McMahon of the conservative think tank The Empire Center wrote on his blog on Jan. 5th: “Handing even the average community college tuition to 940,000-families would cost more than $4.5 billion. On the surface, then, Cuomo’s initial estimate seems extremely low.”
New York City’s Independent Budget Office estimated on Tuesday that making tuition free for the City University of New York alone would cost up to $232 million a year.
CUNY itself is a sore subject between city legislators and Cuomo. The governor proposed cutting $485 million in aid to the city university system last year. After tremendous backlash Cuomo said that he would have a team work with the university to find “efficiencies.”
It’s hard for legislators who fought those cuts to reconcile that fight with Cuomo’s new education policy–especially because SUNY and CUNY will almost certainly see a surge of new students if tuition becomes free to state residents.
Other legislators and the Alliance for Quality Education question the governor’s commitment to fund continuing education when they say he has failed to properly fund grade schools across the state. “While offering free college tuition to low-income families is laudable, the reality is that many students’ paths to college are limited because their local K-12 public schools lack the resources to support them,” said Jasmine Gripper, Legislative and Policy Director of the Alliance for Quality Education in a statement.
Other groups see Cuomo’s plan as tailored to benefit wealthier students. Cuomo’s current proposal differs from those put forward by Sanders and Clinton. Their plans would have eliminated tuition and allowed students to keep education grants and assistance. Cuomo’s plan doesn’t–instead it makes up the difference between aid received by students and the cost of tuition. Students have to pay for books and room and board.
“Consider the State University of New York in Albany, where tuition is currently $6,470 per year for in-state students,’ wrote Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute in the Jan. 4 edition of The Washington Post. “SUNY Albany students from families making less than $30,000 receive more than $11,000 in grant aid, mostly from Pell and a state-specific program. As a result, tuition is already free for them and they receive no additional benefits under Cuomo’s plan, despite the fact that they still have to come up with more than $10,000 to cover non-tuition costs such as rent and food.”
A number of legislators told The Alt last week that although they like the bigger idea of the plan, they needed to see actual legislation before making a final judgement.
Cuomo has a knack for being able to hammer through monumental feats of legislation even when the odds are against him and even after switching stances. Last year he moved a staggered minimum wage increase and a paid family leave bill through the legislature only a few months after he and his staff rebuked the idea of passing both as flights of fancy. He did it in the face of the indictments of two legislative leaders and the Republican-controlled Senate.
This year the odds will be stacked even higher. Legislators are fuming that Cuomo broke his word about the state pay raise commission that he promised would “depoliticize” the debate over legislative pay. At the end of last year the Cuomo administration was trying desperately to get the legislature to return for an emergency session where they would pass a “big ugly” of bills wrapped together a pay raise was thought to be part of the deal.
But legislators balked–something they’ve rarely done with Cuomo in charge. When Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan couldn’t rally all of his conference to return to town, Cuomo’s office turned to Senate Democrats who feel betrayed that Cuomo hasn’t worked publically to push the Independent Senate Democrats into a Democratic alliance. The special session was lost and with it seemingly any cordiality between the Senate and the Governor’s office. Legislators from both houses began openly discussing boycotting Cuomo’s State of the State Address.
Cuomo for his part appears to be trying to distance himself from the legislature. He will hold six regional addresses across the state rather than the traditional speech before the legislature.
Legislative leaders have said they won’t attend any of the local speeches. It is also unclear when Cuomo will unveil his budget proposal and whether it will contain further details on the education proposal. The executive budget is due by Jan. 17.
If Cuomo has national ambitions, they won’t likely be hurt by distancing himself from what is seen by the public as a dysfunctional and corrupt body. However, the more Cuomo appears positioned to be a national figure, the more it will behoove Senate Republicans to thwart his plans as they’ve largely embraced President-Elect Donald Trump and his policies, and Cuomo is positioning himself as the resistance.