It was three days into the New Year at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, and Governor Andrew Cuomo was spooling himself into a pitch for a major 2017 policy initiative: “free” tuition at New York’s two public universities. Back in the day, he declared with voice rising, if you were from Queens “you could work your way up and . . . you could be as successful as anyone. And the great equalizer was the public education system. With a public education you could go from anywhere and wind up anything. You could be Mario Cuomo, my father, born to poor Italian immigrants in South Jamaica, Queens and you could wind up Governor of the state of New York all from the public education system.”

It was a classic Cuomo tub-thump—and, as is all too often the case with the governor’s orations, it essentially wasn’t true. Yes, Mario Cuomo did attend a public grammar school, but from that point on, it was private school, all the way: St. John’s Preparatory School, St. John’s University, and St. John’s Law School. And there is considerable irony in this, insofar as the “free tuition” scheme that Cuomo the Younger is advancing could do substantial damage to New York’s highly regarded, and economically critical, network of private colleges and universities—the path that his father really took to Albany’s Executive Mansion. 

How much would “free tuition” at New York’s public universities really cost, anyway? Is it even necessary? And who would pay for it?

The governor’s plan seems straightforward enough. He means to provide “topping-off” aid—the difference between actual SUNY/CUNY tuition and existing subsidies—for full-time students from families with adjusted gross income (AGI) up to $125,000 annually. Potentially, those students could emerge from college debt-free. The new cash—as proposed, $71 million in the first year, growing to $163 million annually—would come on top of New York’s already robust assistance, effectively eliminating what is currently one of the nation’s lowest public-university tuitions. Indeed, SUNY/CUNY tuition—roughly $6,300 for New York residents—“is the least expensive of any public institution in the Northeast and in the bottom quartile nationally,” according to the university itself.

Thus the practical impact of Cuomo’s proposal mostly will be marginal. But there’s no denying the scheme’s political appeal. Why else would Cuomo have had erstwhile Democratic president candidate Bernie Sanders standing to his right during the announcement? As always, it’s best to be leery of pols bearing free stuff, which almost always has hidden costs. Cuomo’s scheme is no exception.

Post-secondary education is an enormous industry in New York. The state and city universities together enroll more than 412,000 students and boast combined budgets of roughly $14 billion. Meanwhile, four-year enrollment at the state’s 350-plus private colleges and universities was roughly 490,000—with an estimated combined economic impact of some $80 billion in 2015.

To be sure, New York generously subsidizes private-sector higher education. The formulas are complex, and while individual grants tend to be lower than in some other states, New York enrolls more students in aid programs, with the result that New York spends more on aid than most other states. Now Cuomo proposes to tinker with those aid formulas to help finance his free-tuition initiative. This has private-sector educators worried about the impact on their own lower- and middle-income students—and on their institutions in general.

At present, New York’s $1 billion-a-year Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, is available to income-qualified state residents attending either public or private colleges. The maximum TAP award of $5,165 is calibrated to cover full SUNY or CUNY tuition when combined with federal aid to the poorest students. Students from families with adjusted gross incomes from roughly $60,000 to nearly $100,000 now are eligible for the minimum TAP award of $500. Not surprisingly, low-income students attending private institutions depend disproportionally on TAP aid—as do the colleges.

What the governor’s announcement didn’t say is that he’s seeking to strip aggregate assistance from private schools that raise tuition even a tick above the Consumer Price Index. This arguably places at risk more than $220 million in subsidy cash, according to the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities. That may be a pittance in the context of total higher-education spending, but it’s money disbursed in small increments and often represents the difference between attending college or not.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: A $650 tuition increase at Albany’s Siena College, a business-oriented liberal arts school whose $32,293 tuition attracts middle-class students, would match the projected CPI rate—plus $5 or so. That $5 difference, however, could technically be enough to render all of Siena’s low-income enrollees ineligible for TAP aid.

In the real world, such details would be massaged, but only up to a point. Siena and other private schools are already operating on the razor’s edge as they compete against one of the nation’s lowest public-university tuitions—which Cuomo means to subsidize further at the expense of the privates.

It’s a dangerous game for a governor who professes to value economic vibrancy. Academics aside, local colleges or universities are among the only job engines left in many depleted upstate communities. Messing with that mix is a fraught enterprise, so why would Cuomo want to do it?

The governor, who polls virtually everything, doubtless had no difficulty discovering tuition angst among New York’s hard-pressed middle- and working-class voters. In that context, “free” tuition would be among the quickest of fixes for a governor committed to running for a third term—and maybe with ambitions beyond that. So “free” tuition it is, and let the consequences fall where they may. It’s hard to imagine that Mario Cuomo, proud private-college grad, would have approved.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images


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