hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues February-March 2017


Tuition-free at SUNY: Will private colleges pay?

New state law sends N.Y. districts scrambling to halt exposure to toxin


SUNY Adirondack Joan K. Lentinni photoBy EVAN LAWENCE
Contributing writer


Students walk to the dormitory built four years ago at SUNY Adirondack, whose campus in Queensbury previously served only day students. The college’s enrollment might grow under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to make public college tuition free for families earning less than $125,000.Joan K. Lentinni photo


New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to make state colleges and universities tuition-free for in-state students is raising questions among private and neighboring-state colleges who fear they could lose students as a result.

“Private colleges are concerned,” said state Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury.
Little’s northern New York district includes three community colleges as well as the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. It’s also served by two private colleges, Paul Smith’s in the Adirondacks and Skidmore College, which is just south of the district line in Saratoga Springs.

“Skidmore is a big economic engine,” Little said. “Paul Smith’s spends $70 million a year locally.”
Cuomo announced his proposal in early January to create an Excelsior Scholarship Program to effectively eliminate tuition for full-time students in the State University of New York system whose families earn less than $125,000 a year. The governor estimated more than 940,000 low- and middle-income New York households with college-age students would qualify.

Students would have to be enrolled full-time at either a two-year community college or four-year state or city university. Family income limits would start at $100,000 annually in 2017 and be capped at $125,000 annually in 2019. The scholarship would be in addition to the state’s Tuition Assistance Program and any other federal or private grants or scholarships students might receive.

The governor’s office estimated that by 2024, about 3.5 million jobs in the state will require at least an associate’s degree. The Excelsior program, which would be the first of its kind in the nation, “will enable thousands of bright, young students to realize their dreams of higher education” while relieving some of the burden of student debt, Cuomo said in his announcement. The announcement was attended by Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who championed a similar concept in his presidential campaign last year and enthusiastically endorsed Cuomo’s proposal.

Cuomo noted that the longer students take in a degree program, the less likely they are to graduate and the greater the debt they’re likely to accrue. By requiring students to enroll full-time, the program would improve graduation rates and reduce debt load, he contended. Based on enrollment projections, the program would cost $163 million per year.

The tuition scholarship would not apply to students who can only attend school part time, or to students in career development or enrichment classes. It also would not cover room and board, books or other fees that can add substantially to the cost of attending college.


Changing role for community colleges
Little said that because of declining high school enrollments, community colleges in her district are facing decreases in student numbers.

“Many are relying on non-traditional students who take work-force development programs,” she said. “Or they’re recruiting from outside the area. But that’s not what community colleges are for.”
Little said she is concerned that making all state schools tuition-free could hurt some community colleges.

“One of the advantages of two-year colleges is that they’re cheaper than four-year colleges,” Little said. “Why go to Clinton Community College if you could go to SUNY Plattsburgh for free?”
SUNY Adirondack, also known as Adirondack Community College, serves primarily Saratoga, Warren and Washington counties. As of the fall semester, it had 3,700 full- and part-time students, down from 4,200 two years earlier. Most were enrolled at its main campus in Queensbury, while about 12 percent attended its satellite campus in Wilton and 9 percent took courses on line.

SUNY Adirondack had long been a commuter-only college, but four years ago it opened a new 400-bed dormitory. Although overall enrollment has declined in the past two years, the dormitory remains filled to capacity.

College spokesman Doug Gruse offered no theory about how the program would affect SUNY Adirondack.

“SUNY Adirondack is excited about the potential of the Excelsior Scholarship Program,” he said. “But at this early stage, we have no way to gauge exactly what it will mean for the college’s enrollment.”

SUNY Adirondack President Kristine Duffy also suggested it was too soon to predict whether the college would change substantially if the program is enacted.

“We certainly applaud the governor for being able to take a strong stand on affordability,” Duffy said. “I suspect there will be a lot of discussion of how it can be funded in an environment where, quite frankly, public higher education has been underfunded for the last several years.”


Fallout in Mass., Vermont?
Some New York students cross state lines to take classes at community colleges in Vermont and Massachusetts. But Katie Powers, a spokeswoman for Community College of Vermont, said Cuomo’s proposal would not likely have a significant impact on that system.

At Southern Vermont College in Bennington, 96 percent of the 400 students receive financial aid. The private four-year college draws students from across the state line, but college President David Evans didn’t seem too worried about Cuomo’s proposal.

“We get fairly significant numbers of students from New York, but more from Massachusetts,” Evans said. “That would buffer us.”

Evans pointed out that some of the school’s programs aren’t available at public colleges in New York. For example, Southern Vermont College grants a bachelor’s degree in nursing science, while the closest community college in New York, Hudson Valley Community College, with 13,000 students, only offers an associate’s degree, he said.

“I’m a big supporter of college access,” Evans said. “My preference is for larger grants that could be used at any school.”

New York’s Tuition Access Program, federal Pell grants, and Vermont Student Assistant Corporation grants all can be used now to help pay tuition at both public and private schools. With these funding sources, “students can choose the program that’s right for them,” Evans said.
The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams draws 20 percent of its students from New York, said Denise Richardello, the school’s executive vice president. The college is part of the Massachusetts public university system.

“We provide an 85 percent reduction from our out-of-state tuition for every New York student who qualifies,” she said. “That’s about $9,000 in savings annually. They can also apply for other aid, including need-based and scholarships.”

MCLA is the only public college in Massachusetts that focuses on the liberal arts, Richardello said. Many of its academic programs take advantage of artistic and cultural activities in the Berkshires, including a program in arts management that few other schools offer, she said.
Richardello said she is confident that when New York students look at the school’s cost, scenic location, quality of programs and facilities, and its small size, it would still be an attractive choice.
“We’ll see how it plays out in New York,” Richardello said.


Serving a different market
Debra Townsend, the interim vice president of communications and marketing at Skidmore, said the college would see some effect, but not a major one. Only about 28 percent of Skidmore’s 2,500 students come from New York.

“We have a lot of students whose income is well below $125,000,” she said. “About half get financial aid.”

Although the school can’t afford to be need-blind, for students who qualify, Skidmore’s financial aid package “could be very competitive,” Townsend added.

She described Skidmore as a “very intensive liberal arts college” with small student-faculty ratios and small classes. The college also has strong programs for internships, study abroad and career placement.

“Students who like large schools aren’t attracted to Skidmore,” Townsend said. “It’s a different kind of education.”

Skidmore’s four-year graduation rate, in the 80 percent range, greatly surpasses SUNY’s, which is less than 50 percent, she said.

“We’re very strong advocates of extending the Excelsior Scholarship Program to private colleges,” Townsend said. “We would very much appreciate it.”

Regardless of what the governor proposes, nothing is certain until the state Assembly and Senate approve the funding. Some college officials predicted that is unlikely.

“I’m skeptical that it’s actually going to happen,” Evans said. “I haven’t done the math, but there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of students in New York schools. I think it’s going to cost a lot more than $163 million.”

Little, who serves on the Senate Finance Committee, said the governor’s proposal is short on specifics.

“All those details will be discussed” in the Legislature in negotiations over the 2017 budget, which is due in April, she said.

“I’m sure it could be worked out,” Little said. “There are a lot of proposals in the budget. We would have to look at how they affect different areas and where the money is coming from. We have until April 1.”