Higher Education

OPINION: In the heart of the Big Apple, a college’s president and students laud free tuition proposal

Reimagined: Prospects for middle-class membership, economic stability

On the campus of LaGuardia Community College, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of N.Y. introduces his plan for free college tuition for qualifying students. Gov. Cuomo is accompanied by Sen.Bernie Sanders (D-VT)

Gov. Cuomo’s proposal to make attending New York State’s nationally renowned public colleges tuition-free for families making under $125,000 is a game-changer. It is a profound and essential step forward in conceptualizing what the U.S. education system must look like in the 21st Century.

The proposal will need approval from the New York State Legislature before it can go into effect, and while we await details there is much to celebrate. Seeing our governor place higher education, and the need to make college education accessible and affordable to more New Yorkers, as the focal point of his agenda is of national significance.

Cuomo’s proposal indicates a resetting of the minimal education standards needed to be successful in today’s America. It reimagines what requirements are needed to have a chance at a life of economic stability, as a member of the middle class, for individuals and their families. It aligns state policy with what is widely understood to be needed in today’s job market: a post-secondary degree. It acknowledges that an educated citizenry is vital for our country’s future as a democracy.

Related: Who benefits from New York’s free college plan?

About a hundred years ago, the campaign to make high school free and mandatory got underway. Up until that point, high school graduates were mainly those from wealthier families who could send their children to private high schools. Today we can’t imagine a world in which our young people don’t attend high school. Some have argued that our country’s success throughout the past century was built upon free K-12 education.

This new proposal will encourage those who had presumed that a college degree was unobtainable for them — and there are many who hold this unfortunate misperception — to pursue their undergraduate education at the State University of New York (SUNY) and/or the City University of New York (CUNY).

Who are these people? They’re parents who want to make a better life for their families. Older adults who need to upgrade their skills for the changing economy. Adults who had poor grades in high school but are eager for a new chance. Or high-achieving young people from low-income families, often with few or no college graduates to look to as role models.

Related: How free college tuition in one country exposes unexpected pros and cons

We saw this in Tennessee, which has seen a tremendous uptick in college enrollment after implementing its tuition-free college program, Tennessee Promise, in 2015. Community college enrollment has risen by nearly 25 percent, and technical college enrollment has risen by 20 percent. Reflecting a commitment to their education, more than 80 percent of students who attended college in the fall returned for their second semester. To many observers, these data reflect a broader and often harder to achieve impact: the embrace of a college-going culture. An expanding perception among families and communities of who should or can go to college.

For students who are in college but struggling to pay tuition or make ends meet, this scholarship could allow them to focus on their studies with significantly less stress about tuition costs.

Students like Britney Farquharson, a 21-year-old psychology student at LaGuardia Community College. Right now she receives some financial aid, but because of her salary and her father’s salary, she has to pay a portion of her tuition out-of-pocket. She expects to graduate from LaGuardia in June 2017.

Until she heard about Cuomo’s proposal, her plan was wait until she turns 24 and can be considered independent from her father, in order to finish her degree at a four-year school. As she said, “This gives me so much hope that I won’t need to gamble my income or finish school later than I want to.”

Related: Why community college leaders are skeptical about Obama’s free college plan

And I hope this scholarship will be available to existing students who are in danger of running out of crucial financial aid before graduating.

Many programs, such as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), have limits on the length of coverage. So students who restart at a public college after attending a for-profit school, or lose credits due to transferring schools or changing majors, often struggle to pay for the last portion of their degree program, take out student loans, or worse, drop out.

One such student is M. Rahman, a 22-year-old business major from southeast Queens who plans to become a lawyer. He transferred to LaGuardia after a difficult time attending three semesters at a four-year college. When he enrolled at LaGuardia he changed majors so many of the credits he’d earned at the four-year college didn’t transfer. As a result, his FAFSA support will run out before he finishes the last two semesters of his bachelor’s degree. If Cuomo’s proposal is enacted, and if he qualifies for the scholarship, it’d help him finish his last year of college without taking out student loans.

Related: Sanders’ free college plan would take from the rich to give to the rich

As with any new big idea, there are questions. But those can and will be answered and addressed as the legislation moves ahead. Gov. Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship proposal is more than a starting point. It sets a marker for where we as a state and nation need to head. It recognizes that investments in higher education are among the most important ones we can make to our country’s economic and social infrastructure.

Yet we need to ensure that those students who cannot attend full-time, because of work or family commitments, are not ignored.

I’m honored that Gov. Cuomo, with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders by his side, chose to announce this proposal here at LaGuardia Community College. As reflected by the enthusiastic response they heard from the students, faculty and staff in the audience, as well as now editorial boards across the state, this proposal brings great hope. Yes, of course, the devil is in the details. But Gov. Cuomo has raised the bar for how our country creates and builds the middle class in the decades ahead.

Gail O. Mellow is the president of LaGuardia Community College/ CUNY.

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Gail Mellow

Gail O. Mellow is the president of LaGuardia Community College/ CUNY. See Archive