Elitism in education has been a growing problem in the country as the cost of a college degree hit $60,000 a year at many top-rated institutions. The trickle-down effect was felt at the other end of the spectrum where tuitions rose at two-year community colleges and small four-year schools.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is determined to break that cycle. He visited LaGuardia Community College, one of the best of its kind, in Long island City last week to announce a plan for free tuition at CUNY and SUNY colleges. At his side was Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who put free tuition at public colleges at the top of his recent presidential platform.
If approved by the state Legislature, the so-called Excelsior Scholarship program could ease the lots of the poorest CUNY students from families with incomes of less than $30,000 who often struggle to pay the portion of tuition not already covered by federal and state grants.
Even a hike in the subway fare for students operating on the margins can mean they won’t have the money to sign up for courses or the funds to commute to school. And that’s after juggling school work with at least one outside job.
CUNY rates are among the lowest in the country, but tuition of $6,330 a year for full-time students at four-year colleges and $4,800 at community colleges can still be a daunting obstacle for many.
Queens College has been called the best bargain in America by US News & World Report.
Cuomo’s tuition plan could also benefit students of the beleaguered middle class whose families earn less than $125,000 a year even more than the poorest students, who qualify for more aid. These are New Yorkers with food on the table and a roof over their heads who find it too difficult to foot the full bill for higher education and face years of crippling student debt.
The governor’s plan would make CUNY and SUNY free for nearly a million New Yorkers at a time when a college degree is the passport to future economic success.
The free tuition approach has unnerved some smaller colleges, which fear potential students will opt for public institutions instead. But what a boon if Cuomo’s plan spurred enough competition that tuition at other institutions in the state held or even declined.
Lawmakers in Albany must decide how much this ambitious challenge will cost, but we would like to see Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship become a model for the country. We have an obligation to educate the next generation without weighing them down with debt so that they can be free to flourish.