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Opinion There is actually nothing for low-income students in Cuomo’s free-college plan

A University at Albany State University of New York (SUNY) sign stands in Albany, New York, U.S Photographer: Ron Antonelli/Bloomberg

This week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to cover tuition at state colleges and universities for any residents whose families earn less than $125,000 a year. Matthew M. Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, argues that the proposal will do little to help the state’s neediest students. — Danielle Douglas-Gabriel

By Matthew M. Chingos

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo appeared to jump on the progressive bandwagon when he announced a free-college plan yesterday. But buried in the fine print of the $163 million plan are significant benefits to upper-middle-income families — those making up to $125,000 per year — while the plan does nothing for low-income students, for whom existing grant aid already covers tuition.

New York takes a stab at debt-free college, covering tuition for families earning less than $125,000

Free-college plans surged in popularity in 2016 as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made such a plan a central element of his presidential campaign, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton eventually followed suit. The Sanders and Clinton plans would have provided benefits to students from families with a wide range of incomes. But supporters of these plans could argue that including more affluent families was necessary to obtain broad-based political support.

The Cuomo plan differs in a way that tilts it even further in favor of more affluent families. Sanders and Clinton proposed eliminating tuition while letting students keep their existing grant aid, such as the Pell grants received by low-income students. But Cuomo has proposed only covering the difference between tuition and students’ existing aid, meaning that those who get the most aid benefit the least from the proposal.

Did the idea of free public higher education go down with the Democrats?

Consider the State University of New York in Albany, where tuition is currently $6,470 per year for in-state students. SUNY Albany students from families making less than $30,000 receive more than $11,000 in grant aid, mostly from Pell and a state-specific program. As a result, tuition is already free for them and they receive no additional benefits under Cuomo’s plan, despite the fact that they still have to come up with more than $10,000 to cover non-tuition costs such as rent and food.

But students from upper-middle-income families would do quite well under the Cuomo plan. At SUNY Albany, students from families making between $75,000 and $110,000 currently receive less than $700 in grant aid, on average. That means they face a bit under $6,000 in tuition payments each year, which the Cuomo plan would cover for them.

There’s an old saying that “programs for the poor are poor programs.” That may well justify policies that benefit both low- and middle-income Americans, but leaving out the poor entirely is an odd move for a governor rumored to be building his progressive bona fides for 2020.

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