- Associated Press - Monday, March 13, 2017

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to give middle-class students free tuition at state colleges has touched off a broader debate about the cost of an education - and several alternative proposals.

Senate Democrats on Monday offered their own plan for the nation’s largest public university system, with 440,000 students spread among 64 campuses. Their plan would make tuition free for students from families earning up to $150,000, compared to Cuomo’s $125,000 threshold.

The new proposal would also give lower income students more help with room and board and $10 million in increased aid for students at private colleges.

“Half-measures will not help struggling New York families,” said Sen. Mike Gianaris, D-Queens. “Now is the time for real results, not unnecessary compromises that lessen the assistance we should be providing hard-working New Yorkers.”

The Democratic governor’s $163 million proposal has been criticized for not addressing rising room and board costs or student debt, or doing more to help those who struggle the most to pay for an education. Cuomo’s proposal would cover whatever tuition costs remain after other sources of federal and state financial aid are factored in for students meeting the $125,000 threshold.

“It isn’t everything that we want,” said Marc Cohen, president of the Student Assembly of the State University of New York. “But we’re glad that this discussion is at the forefront.”

In-state tuition at State University of New York campuses is just under $6,500 a year, about a third of the typical four-year student’s total public college bill in New York. Room and board are the bigger-ticket items at nearly $13,000 a year, and student fees and books tack on another $3,000.

“This does nothing to help the neediest,” said Beth Akers, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. “A free tuition proposal on top of the status quo would not benefit them in any way … free college is not really free.”

Cuomo announced Monday that several dozen leaders from state colleges have endorsed the plan he calls “the Excelsior Scholarship.”

“This is a critical step forward in our efforts to build up our workforce, remain competitive in the global economy, support the middle class, and create a more prosperous New York for all,” he said in a statement.

Also Monday, Jim Malatras, president of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, said at a forum on the plan that the free tuition program is intended to be a practical, feasible solution to the problem of college affordability. Malatras is a former Cuomo aide and worked closely on the proposal before being named president.

“Some people say the program is too much, some people say it doesn’t do enough - we think we got it just right,” he said. “This is not free college. This is free tuition.”

Assembly Republicans offered their own alternative earlier this year. It would raise eligibility for the state’s tuition assistance program - which serves both public and private students - and offer every recipient another $500, while increasing tax breaks for student debt payments.

Private colleges have complained that the plan would widen the gap between the cost of a public and private education and that state financial aid should be applied equally to both public and private schools.

“There’s no such thing as free, free always comes with a cost, and we believe the cost will be very profound” to private colleges, said Mary Beth Labate, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities.

Some type of plan is expected to be included in the state budget now being negotiated by Cuomo and state lawmakers. A final vote is expected by April 1.

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