EDITORIAL: What’s with ‘free college’?

TALK ABOUT IMPOSSIBLE DREAMS, consider the idea of a free college education at a state college or university for any qualified student from a household earning between $55,000 and $125,000 a year. What nutty professor thought up that idea?

Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders proposed a national version of something similar and convinced Hillary Clinton to take up the cause. It was destined to be a history footnote until last week, when Governor Andrew Cuomo, with Sen. Sanders at his side, revived the idea, applying it to this state.

How would “free college” affect Columbia-Greene Community College (C-GCC) on Route 23 in Greenport? The college, which marked its first half-century last year, has about 1,700 full- and part-time students, most of them from Columbia and Greene counties. Each of the two counties contributes some taxpayer support and the state pays a share too.

C-GCC President James Campion said this week that he and his staff have not yet seen the text of the governor’s proposal, called the Excelsior Scholarship. But Mr. Campion did have information that helps put this wild-eyed plan into perspective in a way that doesn’t sound so wild-eyed at all.

Full-time tuition to C-GCC is $4,400 and there are about $400 in fees for things like labs. “We try not to add on too much,” President Campion said. But there are books and supplies, which can cost $1,000 a year. The college estimates that students around here also have to spend $1,500 for transportation and need $900 for miscellaneous personal expenses. And that doesn’t include a place to live, which might be with parents but isn’t in a dormitory, because the college doesn’t have any.

That comes to $7,200 a year to the college, which is a bargain at a school like C-GCC, a popular school with well-regarded programs. But it’s a stiff price for students from families just getting by. That’s one reason why so many students choose to attend the college part time. Dr. Edward Schneier, chairman of the C-GCC Board of Trustees, wrote last week in a column in this paper that the college anticipates two of every three students will be enrolled part time by 2019. Too bad part-time students aren’t eligible for Excelsior Scholarships.

President Campion sees the proposed mandate that would restrict the Excelsior Scholarships only to full-time students as a good thing for a practical reason: “Full-time enrollment is the key to completion” of a college program.

What’s more, this program won’t necessarily cost taxpayers as much as it might seem. That’s because the governor’s Excelsior Scholarship is a “last-dollar proposal.” It would cover the costs not already paid by other programs, like the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), which is also limited to full-time students, federal Pell grants and individual student awards. These programs work. Only 2% of C-GCC students pay the full amount of tuition and fees and about 60% graduate without any college education debt.

Each of the schools in the SUNY system is different and costs are higher at four-year colleges and university campuses. But initial estimates for the Excelsior Scholarship say it could help up to 200,000 eligible students statewide and cost $163 million. That’s a mere drop in the bucket when you consider that the TAP program already awards a billion dollars a year.

It would make more sense to treat education like Medicare, with the federal government paying the costs of higher education for qualified students. After all, with Medicare, what do we get but old people like me living longer and sometimes healthier lives. Education, on the other hand, is an investment in the future because educated people have better jobs and pay more taxes… that support Medicare.

In the near term we’re not likely to see anything as enlightened as that at the federal level, so we’ll have to settle for a piecemeal approach to smarter ideas for education after high school. It’s up to the state to take more responsibility, and Governor Cuomo’s Excelsior is a good start.

It isn’t a “free college education” for all. It does nothing for part-time students, who comprise the majority of people attending colleges like C-GCC. But it will help. So contact your state representatives and ask them to support the Excelsior Scholarship proposal or to adopt better ways to make state colleges more affordable. It’s not so complicated. As C-GCC President Campion put it, “Anytime there’s a program for people to continue their education, it’s a good thing.”

Comments are closed.