BY CHERYL SLAVIN
State Assemblyman James Skoufis has introduced a bill, “Tuition-Free NY,” (A.8585), to provide free tuition to New York State residents who wish to attend SUNY or CUNY schools. Last Thursday he made his first Rockland appearance to unveil his plan before an assembly of sophomores, juniors, teachers and administrators at North Rockland High School.
“Student debt and tuition rates are soaring higher and faster than our families and students can keep up with. Tuition-Free NY changes the equation so that truly affordable higher education is within reach for all New Yorkers,” he told the audience.
Evidence supporting the need for such a program included the continuing rise in SUNY and CUNY tuitions and the corresponding increase in debt accumulated by college graduates– about 60% of all New York college students graduate with an average debt of at least $25,000. Skoufis also stressed that an educated New York is a better New York. College graduates typically earn more per year than non-graduates; reducing their debt increases their ability to spend more and boost the economy. Increasing the number of graduates who will remain to in the state would also improve the quality of its workforce.
The plan requires that qualifying students work a certain number of community service hours per each year in school, and further, a commitment by the graduate to live and work in New York for at least five years after graduation. Students pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) degrees would be required to work 125 hours; those pursuing other degrees would be required to work 250 hours of community service. The disparity in hours reflects the legislators’ desire to attract more STEM majors in order to keep New York competitive on an international level. The plan covers tuition fees only; room, board, and other fees would still be the responsibility of the student.
Questions arose about the feasibility and execution of the program. A North Rockland teacher who offers a course in finance asked how the state would pay for the program, and what would happen if it were tied to a funding stream that dried up. Skoufis answered that funding was a matter of priorities, and that the cost of this program would equal about 1 percent of a State annual budget of $140 billion. He did not envision the program being tied to a funding stream, but rather to be paid out of discretionary money already available in the annual budget.
Several students also expressed concern that if tuition-free, SUNY schools might become swamped by the highest level of academic achievers, thereby diminishing the odds of acceptance for mid-level students. Skoufis answered that theoretically the schools could shift money originally raised to fund scholarships and financial aid—no longer needed because tuition would be free—to increase capacity of the schools and accommodate more students. He believed that the trustees and the campuses would adhere to their purpose of providing quality public college education, and that they would take the steps necessary to continue to make that available to as wide a range of students as possible.
With regard to accommodating the needs of students with physical or learning disabilities, Skoufis noted that the community service requirement had been left purposely flexible, so that students can participate in any pre-approved project at the discretion of the campus. He is also open to adding clarifying language to the bill if necessary to make the tuition-free program accessible to all.
Recently Skoufis has spoken against the governor’s proposal to offer free college classes to New York State inmates. After the meeting he clarified that while he does not oppose offering college education to convicted prisoners, he believes that the discretionary funds in the budget should first go towards a tuition-free program for law-abiding, hard working state residents. However, he does not see the two programs as necessarily mutually exclusive, so long as there is funding.
So far Skoufis has about 40 co-sponsors in the Assembly, including Rockland Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, and the bill is being supported in the Senate by State Senator Diane Savino. Residents interested learning more about the program can contact Skoufis’s office directly at 845-469-6929.