ALBANY — A group of more than 100 private colleges is questioning the fairness of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan to offer free tuition at taxpayer-funded colleges, citing provisions that penalize them for raising tuition.
The Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, whose members educate nearly 500,000 students and employ more than 400,000 people in the state, came out roaring this week in its first public comment since Cuomo broached the $163 million plan.
"It could have devastating, and I assume unintended, consequences for private colleges that have long been the pillars of their communities," Mary Beth Labate, president of the Albany-based commission, told lawmakers.
The plan, woven into Cuomo's proposed budget, makes New York the first state to fully subsidize tuition at four-year colleges. The free tuition plan, for students from households making less than $125,000 per year, would also be offered at two-year community colleges.
Only Tennessee and Oregon community colleges offer tuition-free education.
Cuomo administration officials said that in addition to making college affordable for middle class families, the governor's plan provides incentives for public college students to earn degrees in four years by requiring that they take a full load of classes each semester to get the full subsidy.
Jim Malatras, a Cuomo adviser, said debt mounts for students when it takes them five or six years to graduate.
Tuition at state university campuses is $6,470 annually, while private colleges in New York charge from $25,000 to about $50,000. However, many students enrolled at the latter pay far less as a result of scholarships and other financial aid.
For years, the state has eased the tuition burden for students from low-income backgrounds through its Tuition Assistance Program. The state spends about $1 billion a year on the program, and students at both public and private colleges are eligible.
One controversial piece of Cuomo's plan gives the state power to hold back assistance from students at private colleges that raise tuition above state-set limits.
Other criticisms of his plan focus on subsidizing tuitions of undocumented immigrants, or drawing residents of other states who come to take advantage of New York's bargain prices.
Another concern is that students who take free tuition will graduate and then take their degrees elsewhere.
State Sen. Robert Ortt, R-NT, said Senate Republicans have no interest in a plan that gives free tuition to non-citizens, calling the Cuomo proposal a "backdoor Dream Act."
He's also concerned that it will drive students from small private schools, such as Niagara University, to public colleges. It could also dry up interest in apprenticeship programs run by labor organizations, Ortt added.
While student debt burdens many college graduates, those with brand new degrees will continue to move out of state without more emphasis on job creation upstate, he said.
"Until you address the issue of jobs, you are treating the symptom, not the disease," Ortt said in an interview.
A North Country lawmaker, Sen. Betty Little, R-Warren County, voiced similar concerns, calling private colleges "economic engines" in their communities.
"If they were to close as a result of declining enrollment, the ripple effect would be really substantial," she said.
Cuomo's budget plan is also creating backlash for cutting off tuition assistance grants to private college students whose schools hike tuition by $500 or more. Students at private and public colleges, from households with annual incomes of $80,000 or less, generally qualify for that aid.
Margaret Drugovich, president of the private Hartwick College in Oneonta, noted the state contributes about $8,800 on average to each student enrolled in public college. It puts up just $650 to those on private campuses, she said.
"That's a big gap," she said, contending the private colleges have provided a major benefit to the state by educating hundreds of thousands of students with far fewer public dollars than the $6 billion New York spends on public colleges.
Drugovich challenged the wisdom behind linking tuition aid to tuition hikes, noting the grants are made to students, not to schools.
"It's a disconnect for me that he would want to penalize needy students who want to go to private colleges by taking their (Tuition Assistance Program) funds away from them," she said in an interview.
Malatras said private colleges end up using tuition hikes to subsidize scholarships, and the state has no say. Meanwhile New York's private colleges collect $400 million in state support, exceeding that of all other states except Texas.
"They are taking state subsidies given to poor kids to raise tuition so they can pay for some of the scholarships at those schools," he said.
Republicans aren't the only skeptics of Cuomo's plan.
The chairwoman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, Deborah Glick, D-Manhattan, said curbing tuition subsidies for students at private colleges that raise tuition is a "de facto price control," though she welcomes efforts to address the massive debt heaped onto students.
Glick and other lawmakers questioned Cuomo's projected cost estimate for the program after SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, who is slated to retire this year, said it will "move the dial on access" to higher education.
Zimpher said the plan is likely to stir interest in getting a college education among students who had abandoned the idea.
State university officials were not involved in crafting Cuomo's proposal, which has been endorsed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Ortt said the fact Cuomo is highlighting his free tuition plan suggests he wants to use it to fuel his political career.
"This is about Iowa in 2020," Ortt said of the first caucus in the next presidential election cycle.
Cuomo has insisted that his only political plan is to run for a third term as governor.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.