Free tuition? Not the same as free college, students say


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By CAROLYN THOMPSON

, N.Y. (AP) — They don't mean to sound ungrateful, but...

New York public college students who would stand to gain from the nation's most ambitious free-tuition proposal are quick to point out a sobering reality from their own meager finances: Free tuition doesn't mean free college.

Take Brooklyn College senior Florencia Salinas, who despite having her tuition nearly covered in full through scholarships and grants, still expects to graduate with a daunting $50,000 in debt. Or Buffalo State College junior Avery Edwards, who despite similar financial aid expects to owe $20,000 after collecting his degree next year.

That's because tuition, at around $6,500 a year, is just 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.

Those extra expenses would not be covered under Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Excelsior Scholarship proposal, which would pay only the difference between financial aid and tuition at State University of New York or City University of New York campuses for full-time students from families earning $125,000 or less.

Students interviewed by The Associated Press said that any tuition help is welcome, but they could also use help paying for the many other costs of a college education.

“It's less that my parents would have to pay. It's less that I would have to pay," said Nigel Peters, a sophomore at Buffalo State College, part of the state's sprawling public college system, which includes 64 State University of New York and 24 City University of New York institutions.

But “enough?" he said. “No, not at all."

The 19-year-old's parents in Queens work overtime to keep the financial burden off of him and his twin sister, who attends college in Delaware. His mother, who already juggles positions in accounting and retail, recently picked up a third job, at an arena box office. They make too much to get aid now, he said, but “we don't make enough so that my parents don't have to work their behinds off to put me and my sister through school."

He would welcome tuition help, he said, especially with plans to pay his own way his senior year. But even if it's covered by then, Peters said, he still will likely work at his minimum-wage job over breaks and need loans to pay for everything else.

Most of Salinas' debt comes from housing costs, so the Cuomo plan probably wouldn't have helped her graduate in better financial shape. The 22-year-old computer science major said she would rather see the state put the money into the faculty and facilities at CUNY.

Cuomo's proposal, which still faces approval by lawmakers, is one of an increasing number of plans across the country that seek to address the nation's suffocating $1.2 trillion in student debt.

Democratic Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo has proposed making two years of community college or the final two years of a four-year degree free at a public college in that state. A plan from Democratic Colorado gubernatorial candidate Mike Johnston would require volunteer service as a condition of two free years of college or job training.

All differ from independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' no-tuition plan, which became a major issue during the presidential campaign. Sanders' plan would have eliminated tuition at public universities and colleges, while Cuomo's “last-dollar" approach pays the tuition after awards from the state and federal sources of aid are applied.

It's a distinction that troubles advocates for lower-income students, who say the program, while expanding aid to the middle class, won't improve anything for them because their tuition is already covered. They warn it might hurt needy students if it takes away some of the flexibility they now have to use federal Pell awards for expenses other than tuition.

“Our goal is to provide the most students with the greatest opportunity," Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever said, “and that goal is met by the Excelsior Scholarship program."

The New York program also comes with a push to get students to tap into existing state and federal financial aid programs that could lower their costs even more. SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher estimated New Yorkers leave $174 million of federal aid untouched each year.

Lawmakers at a budget hearing last month also worried that the $163 million estimated cost of the New York proposal is too low. Cuomo budget officials said they based the estimate in part on free community college programs in other states. The program would also draw on the state's existing $1 billion Tuition Assistance Program.

SUNY enrolls 403,000 undergraduate students and CUNY 245,000 students. Based on 2014-15 enrollment, about 40,000 students who meet the criteria would begin to have their tuition paid.

Said state Sen. Kenneth LaValle, a Long Island Republican: “All the bean counters say there's no way."

Associated Press writers Karen Matthews in New York City and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.

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