Tri-Lakers, educators, colleges react to Cuomo’s free state college proposal

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, right, with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, unveil Tuesday the first proposal of the governor's 2017 agenda: making college tuition-free for New York’s middle-class families at all SUNY and CUNY two- and four-year colleges.
(Photo provided — Kevin P. Coughlin, governor's office)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, right, with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, unveil Tuesday the first proposal of the governor's 2017 agenda: making college tuition-free for New York’s middle-class families at all SUNY and CUNY two- and four-year colleges. (Photo provided — Kevin P. Coughlin, governor's office)

LAKE PLACID — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal Tuesday to cover tuition costs at state colleges for hundreds of thousands of middle- and low-income New Yorkers sent a ripple effect through the North Country as people digested the gravity of the plan.

Alongside Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at a community college in Queens, Cuomo proposed college students who have been accepted to a state or city university in New York — including two-year community colleges — would be eligible for free tuition, provided their household income is $125,000 or less a year.

At Lake Placid High School early Tuesday afternoon, guidance counselor Connie Hammaker was taken aback by the news that could drastically change the landscape for the dozens of high school seniors she works with each year who are considering higher education.

“Oh, wow,” she said. “It’s definitely a huge (development). I don’t know how to describe it. There are so many factors on the college or student’s side, but I do think this (would be) a great opportunity for students. It would open up a lot of doors.”

Hammaker estimated, under Cuomo’s proposal, between 50 and 60 percent of Lake Placid High School students who pursue college would be afforded the free tuition.

Over at the district offices, Superintendent Roger Catania said the proposal would likely include most Lake Placid High School graduates, citing that more than 40 percent of the district’s students are considered economically disadvantaged and most of the rest come from middle-income families.

Still, Catania had questions about the proposal.

“Would the governor’s plan cover the cost of SUNY fees, which can run up to $1,500 or more?” Catania said. “Would it replace or reduce the merit scholarships that many of our high-achieving students already receive? And how would the program be funded? Will it come out of dollars that are presently supporting early-childhood programs or general funding for K-through-12 education? So while we like what the governor is proposing, I think there is more that we look forward to learning about in the weeks ahead.”

Cuomo’s proposal, which has yet to be received by the state legislature as it begins its 2017 session today, stipulates that the state would fill out the cost of students’ tuition payments by supplementing existing state and federal grant programs. The New York Times reported Monday that Cuomo has a three-year rollout for the plan, beginning in the fall, with a $100,000 income limit that would then rise to $125,000 by 2019.

The actual number of students receiving tuition-free higher education would be in the ballpark of 200,000 in 2019, Jim Malatras, the director of state operations, told The New York Times.

But the pool of people across the state who could take advantage of the proposal is much larger, as initial estimates from the governor’s administration said nearly a million New York families with college-age children, or independent adults would qualify.

That group of independent adults and other non-traditional students may result in Cuomo’s proposal, if enacted, being in one of the most impactful of changes in history for the state’s two-year institutions such as North Country Community College in Saranac Lake.

NCCC President Steve Tyrell said Tuesday that he foresees Cuomo’s plan as “quite a heavy financial lift to make happen,” but he did add that the proposal could have a trickle-down effect on the makeup of the college’s student body, its degree programs and the economy of the North Country.

“You may have a 20-year-old with two children who doesn’t fit the traditional college-aged student,” Tyrell said. “Today it’s just about anyone that’s not your typical 18-year-old graduating from high school with no dependents (that’s a non-traditional student), and they may be looking for this kind of opportunity.”

He added that 22 percent of NCCC’s student body currently is non-traditional, but he pointed to how 70 percent of people in the North Country are 25 or older and do not have an academic credential above a high school diploma.

“I just think there is a market in the North Country region that could benefit from that,” he said. “We might have to look really closely at what we are doing in the future, going in directions to support initiatives from the governor. And if that’s the case, I’m sure we’d take a look at it with our faculty.”

The proposal may also affect private schools across the state that won’t be able to offer the same monetary deal to students from within New York’s borders. Nevertheless, a representative from Paul Smith’s College described the news as positive.

“Anything that helps families afford college is a good thing,” said Shannon Oborne, Paul Smith’s chief marketing officer. “When the news did come out this morning, we tried to take a step back and think how it might or might not impact us. Quite frankly, because of the family economic backgrounds of the people impacted by this news, it will have minimal impact on our recruiting.”

At Saranac Lake High School, the guidance office said 48 of 96 graduates last year attended SUNY colleges. Saranac Lake Central School District Superintendent Diane Fox estimated more than 50 percent of the district’s students and their families would be afforded free tuition under the governor’s proposal.

One SLHS student who recently decided to attend a SUNY school, senior Connor Gibbs, felt the proposal was a positive development for him and his peers.

“That would definitely help a lot. It would be a lot easier for most kids to select a college, and they could choose one that would fit them better,” he said. “Paying $40,000 a year to go to school seems kind of ridiculous for me. I don’t see why any school needs to be that expensive.”

New state Assemblyman Billy Jones was tentatively supportive of Cuomo’s proposal while driving down to Albany for his first legislative session representing the North Country’s District 115. The Democrat from Chateaugay won election in November and was sworn in Tuesday.

“I haven’t really gotten into the details of it, but any time we can make college more affordable for our middle-class families to let them send their children to school, we should certainly take a look at it,” Jones said. “But we will have to get into the detail more in the coming weeks.”

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