March 24, 2017 - Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino, along with Fordham University president Fr. Joseph McShane, Iona College president Dr. Joseph Nyre, Pace University chairman emeritus Aniello Bianco and John Ravitz from the Business Council of Westchester, called upon the governor to withdraw his “free college” plan in favor of a solution that lowers college costs and increases access for students at all New York colleges.
“If you think college is expensive now, just wait until its free,” Astorino said. “We absolutely should be working together on solutions to lower college cost and increase access. But any solution to the problem of high college tuition and fees must actually address the problem, include private colleges and bend the cost curve down for everyone.”
Citing research by Georgetown University and a study provided by The Commission on Independent Colleges & Universities in New York (the commission), the group of private college presidents say they expect significant drops in enrollment if the governor’s plan becomes law, causing unintended economic consequences while limiting student choice in higher education.
"I applaud the governor's concerns about college access and affordability, though I believe his specific proposals are a starting place in the conversation, not its conclusion," said Rev. McShane, Fordham’s president. "There are many paths to afford New York students access to higher education at an affordable tuition, but I firmly believe that the current, and longstanding, policy of equal state financial aid for all students of similar means does the most good for the most people. Fordham, like many of its peers in non-profit higher education, is a private university for the public good. Maintaining an evenhanded policy of state financial aid ensures that students are offered both a broader choice of institutions and affordable tuition."
Dr. Nyre, Iona’s president, echoed Fr. McShane’s determination that any conversation which puts a focus on education is a good thing, but that the governor’s plan needs to be reconsidered.
“We applaud New York State’s increasing focus on college affordability and support the expansion of the Tuition Assistance Program,” said Nyre. “This is a meaningful step forward for all New Yorkers. At the same time, we are concerned about the unintended negative consequences of the well-intended Excelsior Scholarship proposal that unfortunately will reduce college choice for students, negatively impact New York’s economy, and adversely affect the very students and families the legislation is trying to support.”
The press conference was hosted by Pace University on its Pleasantville campus. Pace President Stephen J. Friedman expressed particular concern about the disproportionate effect the governor’s scheme might have on lower-income students.
“Private colleges and universities award more bachelor’s degrees annually than SUNY and CUNY combined,” said Friedman in a statement. "It is inexcusable to hurt lower and lower-middle income students who choose to attend a private university by excluding them from the proposed aid. Students deserve to attend a university or college that is the best fit for their needs and lower and middle income students are choosing to enroll at independent colleges and universities because of our track record of elevating their earning power after graduation."
The county’s business leadership was represented by John Ravitz, executive vice president of the Business Counsel of Westchester, who pointed out how valuable Westchester’s colleges and universities are as a delivery system of talent for all the businesses who thrive upon the county’s well-educated workforce.
“We’re here today to say that this plan the governor has proposed is shortsighted in so many ways.” Ravitz, a former N.Y. Assemblyman, continued: “You want to support students and give them every ooportunity, but we must acknowledge the fact that we in Westchester are so blessed to have private and independent colleges that serve as incubators for future employers. When we talk about free tuition, we can not lose sight of the fact that so many of these institutions could be put at risk.”
Another respected group of business leaders, The Westchester County Association, has also expressed concern over the governor’s proposal, and support for the County Executive’s position that it should be reviewed.
Astorino concluded that the commission’s study and the concerns of private colleges indicate a devastating economic impact to Westchester as well as the state.
“Statewide, that economic effect is devastating. In Westchester, this proposal could mean the loss of 5,000 jobs supported by our private colleges. The governor’s solution, which came about without input from stakeholders, would likely have very real, unintended consequences and we are asking that the proposal be withdrawn,” Astorino said. “The governor’s plan threatens to become a double whammy: taxpayers will be asked to pay more to cover the rising public school budgets as more students flock to them. And students in private schools will be looking at higher tutition bills as their schools have to react to declining enrollment.”
Under the governor’s plan, college students who have been accepted to a public university or community college in New York would be eligible for free tuition, provided they or their family earns $125,000 or less a year. However, low-income students attending private universities risk losing all state aid if their college increases tuition past a set index that is determined by the state.