Tag Archives: Andrew Cuomo

The Flaws of New York’s Free-College Plan

Lots of applause greeted Governor Andrew Cuomo’s January 3rd announcement, with Senator Bernie Sanders at his side, that New York’s City and State Universities would be “free” for all New Yorkers from families earning $125,000 a year or less.

The Excelsior program, as it is known, billed as the first in the nation, has been widely accepted as a long overdue measure to allow New York’s deserving middle- and lower-income high-school graduates to attend college, and as an antidote to the alarming rise of student debt. But there are problems in the program’s fine print and even the prospect of some undesirable consequences.

Related: Federal Aid Drives up College Costs

At its unveiling, Governor Cuomo said the Excelsior program would enable more than 940,000 New Yorkers to attend college tuition-free.  That figure was determined by simply calculating the number of college-age children among the 80 percent of New York households earning $125,000 or less (not all of whom will necessarily go to college or attend public institutions in the state).

But if all of those eligible students did take advantage of the offer, at current CUNY/SUNY tuition levels of about $7,000 per year, Excelsior scholarships could cost the state as much as $6.5 billion annually.  Yet, clarifying details offered subsequently pegged the number of students that would initially be impacted by the program as a mere 83,000, and the cost to the state just a mere $163 million. Even these curtailed estimates don’t add up; annual tuition for 83,000 CUNY/SUNY students amounts to $581 million.

The explanation for these wildly inconsistent figures is that the Excelsior program is not really a generous universal college-scholarship program for all but the richest New Yorkers, but a modest “topping-off” of already existing state and federal financial-aid programs.  New York’s longstanding Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) already disburses up to $1.1 billion to over 300,000 students.  And federal Pell Grant and other direct aid programs (i.e. excluding student loans) send millions of dollars more to eligible NewYork collegians.

Related: We Have Too Many Colleges So Cut College Spending

Notwithstanding its misleading advertising, what’s wrong with a program that makes college more affordable for New Yorkers?  If the goal is to get more low-income New Yorkers to go to one of the state’s public colleges, we have two problems.  First, the Excelsior program (like most other “free college” proposals) won’t cover the full financial burden incurred by the receiving campuses. The full annual operating cost (i.e. excluding the cost of personnel fringe benefits and debt service on facilities) at CUNY (City University of New York) or SUNY (State University of New York) now runs between $12,000 and $18,000 per student. And that is even with their reliance on an army of low-paid “adjunct” faculty and monstrously large classes.  Since the Cuomo administration (like its Republican and Democratic predecessors) has strenuously resisted increasing CUNY/SUNY appropriations in the face of prior enrollment increases, it is highly unlikely that it is prepared to pay for the extra costs imposed by newly enrolled Excelsior students, causing further erosion in the quality of CUNY/SUNY undergraduate instruction.

On top of that, there is a strong likelihood that many New York high-school graduates attracted to CUNY and SUNY by Excelsior scholarships will be unprepared for college.  We have been there before.  Between 1969 and 1975, the City University, driven by the same ideological rationale offered for the Excelsior program, was both free and had “open admissions” (i.e. no barrier to admission based on high-school grades or standardized test scores).  The results were catastrophic: the CUNY colleges experienced an influx of students needing “remediation” (which didn’t really work), overcrowded classes, a demoralized faculty and plunging graduation rates.  Thus, if the Excelsior program aims to expand enrollment of low-income students beyond current levels, there is a strong likelihood that this experience will be repeated.

The governor and other Excelsior advocates might argue that free college needn’t mean open admissions.  But in that case there is very little evidence that the Excelsior program is needed.  The current New York State TAP program, supplemented by federal Pell grants, already underwrites the entire tuition of all truly poor students.  If, on the other hand, the main impact of Excelsior scholarships is to divert affluent, college-ready students away from private in-state colleges or out-of-state-institutions, it creates an unnecessary entitlement for the non-needy.

In the cold light of day, if the Excelsior program isn’t merely an exercise in liberal symbolism, it is either a colossal waste of money or an initiative that will seriously erode the quality of the state’s public universities – now that they have, after decades of difficulty, become much stronger institutions.  Since CUNY’s open admissions policy was ended in 2000, the academic quality of its campuses has improved dramatically and, despite increased tuition (necessitated by the state’s budgetary stinginess), their enrollment of qualified students has increased, along with their graduation rates.

SUNY, too, during this period, has grown in enrollment and quality.  If New York State has more money to devote to higher education, the most beneficial way of spending it would be to give it to CUNY and SUNY to improve undergraduate instruction at their woefully underfunded campuses.

How Governor Andrew Cuomo Is Weakening CUNY

I’ve worked at CUNY under four governors—George Pataki, Elliot Spitzer, David Paterson, and Andrew Cuomo. Pataki (and state Senate Republicans) didn’t allocate to the institution sufficient funding. But he was by far the best governor of the four for CUNY.

Pataki appointed a superbly-qualified chairman of the Board of Trustees, Benno Schmidt. He named other trustees—Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, Kay Pesile—who were both independent and committed to CUNY’s academic excellence. (And, despite opposition from status quo faculty, Pataki reappointed Wiesenfeld.) The board, in turn, appointed an excellent chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, whose policies helped to revitalize the institution. All the while, Pataki stood aside and allowed CUNY to flourish free from political meddling.

Neither Spitzer nor Paterson served long enough to leave much of a mark on CUNY—though both seemed to recognize the institution’s significant improvement in the Schmidt-Goldstein era and seemed disinclined to reverse the progress. Not so, however, Cuomo.

For his first term, Cuomo confined his CUNY policy to disinterest—though he distinguished himself as even less supportive of robust funding levels than Pataki or the GOP-led state Senate. But since winning re-election in 2014, he increasingly has targeted the institution. He offered a curious call for consolidating the CUNY and SUNY administrations, despite the radical differences between the two institutions. (For starters: CUNY schools are urban and non-residential; many SUNY schools are rural or exurban with on-campus residency requirements.)

As part of this effort, the Cuomo administration criticized CUNY’s decision to pay Goldstein as chancellor emeritus, which carried with it teaching and research expectations. (As the Times noted at the time, “By national standards, Dr. Goldstein’s compensation has always been moderate.”) And the governor brought to CUNY, which heretofore had a policy that was a model of fairness, his campaign to weaken due process protections for students accused of sexual assault.

In the meantime, Cuomo stacked the CUNY Board of Trustees with political cronies. Here’s a listing, from a recent New York Times summary: “[A] new chairman, William C. Thompson Jr., the former New York City comptroller, Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president; Robert F. Mujica, Mr. Cuomo’s budget director; Ken Sunshine, a public relations consultant; and Mayra Linares-Garcia, Mr. Cuomo’s former director of Latino affairs.” None have, to date, demonstrated any indication of independence from the governor.

Frustrated in his effort to consolidate CUNY and SUNY, the governor then took advantage of alleged financial misconduct by the former president of CCNY, Lisa Coico. The Cuomo-appointed BOT chairman, Thompson, publicly “requested” a university-wide audit by the state inspector general, who—contrary to normal practice—quickly issued an “interim” report. The report’s revelations—focusing on a tendency to hire outside counsel for sticky investigations (an approach that

The report’s revelations—focusing on a tendency to hire outside counsel for sticky investigations (an approach that has worked very well at CUNY) and purportedly excessive discretionary spending by college presidents—hardly seemed to be the type that would justify an “interim” report. Nonetheless, Albany responded with a statement containing a scarcely-concealed attack  on the upper-level CUNY administration.

Cuomo’s motives in targeting CUNY remain unclear. The Times quotes CUNY emeritus professor Kenneth Sherrill, who observed that Cuomo might want to distract attention from a scandal at SUNY-Polytechnic Institute. It’s also possible that CUNY has become caught in the battle between Cuomo and his chief rival in the New York Democratic Party, NYC mayor Bill DeBlasio. If so, CUNY is in deep trouble indeed, trapped between a governor who seems willing to use the institution as a political plaything and a mayor who’s an incompetent ideologue.

But, in the end, Cuomo’s motivation is irrelevant. An effective, independent administration at CUNY is critical given the ineffectiveness of the elected faculty leadership—especially the faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress, which has distinguished itself over the past 15 years for its opposition to every major effort to raise standards at CUNY.

Any vacuum caused by less independent trustees and administrators—the clear effect if not the intent of Cuomo’s policies—will only work to weaken education at CUNY overall.