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Too many questions with tuition-free SUNY plan

Sunday, May 11, 2014
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Free anything sounds good, but it’s hardly ever free. Such is the case with the tuition-free SUNY and CUNY bill that Assemblyman James Skoufis of Orange County has sponsored, and local Assembly members Angelo Santabarbara, Phillip Steck and Patricia Fahey have co-sponsored. The idea isn’t crazy, but raises a lot of questions and may not be affordable.

For students, the tuition isn’t really free because it comes with strings. They’d have to commit to 250 hours a year of community service while working toward their degree, and to living and working in the state for five years after graduation. Time spent unemployed wouldn’t penalize the student, but wouldn’t count toward the five-year work requirement, either. The requirement would eventually have to be fulfilled. At least that’s what the legislation says.

Tuition varies by campus, but a typical tuition this year is $5,900 for an in-state resident at a four-year SUNY college. Besides asking something of students in return for the free tuition, the five-year residency and work requirement are designed to give students a chance to establish themselves, making them more likely to stay in New York after graduation, rather than leaving, as so many do now.

That’s a good goal, but may be unrealistic. The reason so many leave the state now is because the jobs, at least those they aspire to, tend to be elsewhere. Is it worth giving students free tuition if they’re just going to stay and take any low-level job, a job that someone with less education could fill? And if the graduate can’t get a job, he or she might wind up on social services, not contributing tax dollars but consuming them.

Another potential problem is the community service requirement. Worthy as it is, and potentially helpful to charities, nonprofits and municipalities, where will all those students get placed? Who will supervise them? Who will monitor their hours? Most schools have offices that coordinate volunteer work. But with 500,000 students expected to participate at SUNY and CUNY schools, the burden could be heavy, requiring more staff. Will the state pay for that?

And if the free tuition led to a big increase in enrollment, the colleges would need new facilities, personnel and, particularly in the case of community colleges, more remedial programs. Who would pay for them?

Last but by no means least, there’s the cost of the free tuition — estimated at $1.4 billion a year after state Tuition Assistance Program and federal Pell grants are used. Where would that money come from? What state programs would have to be sacrificed?

Skoulis and company are right to be concerned about SUNY’s affordability. There have been steady tuition increases since the state approved a “rational tuition” policy for the system in 2011, letting individual campuses set their own tuition subject to annual caps. They're also right to be concerned about the onerous debt burden with which too may students graduate.

But at this point, we have too many logistical and cost concerns to support their proposal.

 
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