Office of the Governor

Gov. Cuomo making his tuition proposal earlier this month.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to make public college tuition free for all New Yorkers is a bold idea and a smart investment. The Excelsior initiative confronts the central dilemma of New York’s emerging knowledge economy: Higher education has become the main highway to the middle class, yet too many New Yorkers struggle to pay the toll. However, Cuomo’s proposal could have an even more powerful impact by strengthening student success at the same time.

More than half of first-time students at New York’s public colleges will not graduate in six years, a status quo that undermines the promise of equal access to higher education. New York is about to invest taxpayer dollars to make college more affordable. Let’s make sure that money goes to helping students graduate, not just attend classes.

It’s fashionable to say that college is not for everyone. But the economic prospects for students who end their education with a high-school diploma grow grimmer with every passing year. Of the 25 fastest-growing occupations in New York with annual wages over $40,000, 22 require a college degree.

That’s where the governor’s plan comes in. Cuomo proposes that the state offer free tuition to any full-time student of a public college in New York State with an annual family income less than $125,000. The benefit would build on existing programs, including federal Pell Grants and the state’s need-based Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). The plan takes a necessary, even overdue, step toward making public higher education universally accessible.

But making tuition free, by itself, doesn’t get students to graduation. And that’s a problem. The Center for an Urban Future’s 2014 study of student success in New York, Completion Day, found extremely low graduation rates among the state’s 36 community colleges. Statewide, just over one-third of the state’s community college students (35 percent) got any kind of college degree within six years. The graduation rate at senior colleges is better, but not great: about 56 percent graduate at CUNY and 66 percent at SUNY colleges and universities.

New York should make public college tuition-free. At the same time, the state should take steps to help students complete their studies and make the most of this crucial investment. That’s what Tennessee did. This Republican-led state became the first to make community college free for all residents, while simultaneously testing and scaling up effective strategies for student success.

One way New York can invest in student success is by scaling up a home-grown model, CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) initiative. ASAP has more than doubled graduation rates at participating New York City community colleges. Like the governor’s new proposal, ASAP commits to paying college tuition for its students, while also covering the cost of books and public transit. But the secret sauce is ASAP’s package of interlocking student supports, which includes personalized academic counseling, learning communities, tutoring resources, and block scheduling of classes.

Tennessee and CUNY ASAP show that making college tuition-free is not enough. Students need help in other areas too, like choosing courses and majors, juggling class schedules, and getting through the remedial coursework that bogs down so many students right from the beginning.

A strategy to boost student success in tandem with the Excelsior plan should include these key elements:

  • Set statewide goals for improving college graduation rates, especially at community colleges. For instance, the state could set a goal of raising community college graduation rates from 35 percent to 50 percent in five years.
  • Join national and multi-state initiatives focused on boosting college graduation rates, such as Complete College America and Achieving the Dream. These organizations offer a wealth of expertise on student success strategies gleaned from the experiences of partner states and institutions.
  • Launch a grant program to incentivize community colleges across the state to reform remedial education. More than half of the state’s first-year community college students are placed into remedial classes. These students must spend time and money to complete a remedial course before they can begin to earn college credit, and the vast majority will drop out before getting a degree. Although promising changes have begun at both CUNY and SUNY, the state should offer grants to incentivize the adoption of new models for developmental education at colleges statewide.
  • Develop a diagnostic test to identify 11th grade students who need help preparing for college. This early-warning system would give schools more time to get students college-ready by the end of high school.
    Extend the free-tuition guarantee to the summer semester so that students can graduate more rapidly. The faster students earn credits, the more likely they are to graduate. Current financial aid rules discourage students from studying in summer, increasing the likelihood of dropout.
  • Improve access to financial aid and other supports for part-time students. Forty-three percent of New York’s community college students attend school part-time—an increase from 32 percent in 1980. For many adult students with jobs and families, there is no alternative. Yet state policies have not kept pace with this large and growing student population. To boost graduation rates, the state will need to do far more to help these students balance academic aspirations with their responsibilities as workers and caregivers.

Perhaps New York’s most powerful and effective option is to abolish TAP for public colleges and universities. Although TAP is one of the nation’s most generous financial aid programs, its antiquated income tables and confusing rules make it needlessly complex. Instead, the state should use the Excelsior program to cover tuition for all eligible public college students and leave it at that.

Providing free college tuition is a crucial investment in New York’s future. Yet Cuomo’s tuition plan would be even more valuable if paired with reforms to support college success, helping New Yorkers afford college, make it to graduation day, and launch their careers.

Tom Hilliard is Senior Researcher at the Center for an Urban Future.