Why Gov. Cuomo's Free Tuition Plan Hurts Private Colleges
On Wednesday, April 12, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to move forward this fall with the Excelsior Scholarship, which will provide tuition-free access for many in-state students to attend the State University of New York institutions.
A similar initiative in Rhode Island was also put forth by Governor Gina Raimondo, which would make public college free regardless of income level.
Proponents of the New York plan are already hoisting it as a model for other states. The reality is it is anything but the model we should pursue and is very likely to unravel the fabric of the greatest higher education system in the world.
Don’t just take my word for it. The Institute of International Education reported last year in their annual Open Doors Report that there are 1,043,839 students who would probably agree with me. It was the first year that the U.S. has drawn more than 1 million international students to study here and they chose to come here because of the various opportunities our system offers.
On the surface, free tuition sounds great, but a closer examination of the ramifications these programs have on higher education reveals numerous unintended consequences.
It has long been established that financial aid dollars should follow the students wherever they choose to study, granting them the freedom to select the institution that best fits their needs as students. Public and private institutions have coexisted under this model for centuries.
The Excelsior Scholarship would only help open doors to the 89 campuses affiliated with the SUNY and CUNY systems while ignoring the other private non-profit institutions around the state. What’s ironic is that these are the institutions that already do a tremendous job serving low-income, first-generation college students.
Not only do private institutions across the country graduate a greater percentage of the students they enroll, they also get them to graduation faster. Private non-profit institutions overall graduate 53 percent of students in four years, compared to only 34 percent in public colleges and universities, where five and six-year graduation tracks are increasingly commonplace.
It’s not an accident or an anomaly that the differences between institution types exist. Private institutions, including my own at Saint Leo University, typically offer smaller class sizes, better faculty-student ratios and more personalized attention both in the classroom and in student support across campus. These are resources necessary to help students overcome obstacles that might cause them to drop out.
Why would any state develop a plan that would leave out the colleges and universities that are already most effective at dealing with low-income students?
Yes, affordability and accessibility are major concerns in higher education, but the conversation can’t stop there. Simply getting more students in the door doesn’t mean they’ll be any more equipped if they’re not properly shepherded along the way to graduation. If anything, this program would foster even bigger student bodies and class sizes, without also supplying additional classroom space, dorms, faculty and staff that will surely balloon the estimated $163 million price tag already purported by the Excelsior Scholarship. That 34 percent graduation rate will likely drop even further.
If public resources are intentionally diverted away from private institutions in favor of the publics, it’s entirely possible that attending some of the most prestigious institutions in this country will be a luxury left only to the wealthiest college-going population. Private institutions will be forced to handle accessibility struggles on their own, instead of coordinating their efforts with state and federal aid dollars in support.
Let me be clear, the goal of this piece is not to belittle the tremendous work being done at public institutions across the country. These colleges and universities have been incredible stewards and fostered innovative and knowledgeable graduates who make our entire society more valuable.
But programs like Gov. Cuomo’s and Gov. Raimondo’s inherently position publics and privates into direct competition by offering to fund only to one cohort and not the other. Historically, financial aid dollars have been intended to follow the student. If these lawmakers were truly concerned with the outcomes of their constituents, they wouldn’t handcuff their choices to only a handful of the options before them.
Instead of state governments deciding which institutions they’re going to prop up with public funding, let’s remove the restraints from these students as they determine the institution that best fits their needs and career goals.
Dr. William J. Lennox Jr. is president of Saint Leo University, a private non-profit institution in Saint Leo, Florida.