Disappointing My Inner Democrat, or Why I Don’t Support Excelsior

Free tuition comes at a cost.

Photo credit: Kim Carpenter, CC BY 2.0.

On April 8, 2017, with Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) by his side, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the Excelsior Scholarship. Excelsior offers New York state residents with family incomes up to $125,000 free tuition to all public two- and four-year colleges and universities. Reading the news, I felt disappointment, concern, and shame: disappointment that it was happening; concern for the health of small, private colleges in New York; and a personal shame that I wasn’t supportive of something that can help so many.

New York’s free-tuition plan leaves private colleges uncertain about the future

I graduated from college in 2009, a year considered by many to be the worst year to graduate from college. After living at home for ten months, I finally found a job working in admissions at a small, private college in upstate New York. The school was regionally known, but struggled to enroll students from outside of the state, and my coworkers and I fought hard for every student we enrolled. As a not-for-profit, tuition-driven institution, every dollar that a student’s tuition brought in was critical to our mission of offering a quality education.

A month before the Excelsior Scholarship became official, the Commission on Independent Colleges & Universities in New York published a study that evaluated the impact it would have on employment at the 100+ private colleges and universities in the state. In their findings, they estimated a possible enrollment reduction of 54,079 students and loss of 45,000 jobs.

45,000 Jobs, $224 Million in Tax Revenues Could Be Lost If “Free” Tuition Plan Goes Forward, Says New Report | CICU

This comes as concerns over the health of private colleges and universities has been on the rise. While the story of Sweet Briar College and it’s miraculous rise from the ashes thanks to devoted alumnae made national news, the continued work other schools have been doing to find new and unique ways to increase revenue in the place of declining enrollment has played out largely behind the scenes.

Unfortunately, it’s not working. Dowling College in Long Island announced in June 2016 that it was closing after exhausting every avenue it could find to establish partnerships to keep its doors open. To learn, less than a year after Dowling’s closing and the displacement of its 2,400 students, that the Excelsior program will only serve New York State public institutions leaves me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Dowling College in New York to shutter its doors on Friday

Let’s play a game. You are the president of a small, private, liberal arts college in New York State with 1,500 students that is already struggling to meet enrollment goals. Your school is located in a small town that relies on the income provided by enrolled students—in fact, local restaurants have been known to close during school breaks. Your biggest competitor, in terms of enrollment, is the State University of New York (SUNY) 15 minutes down the road.

Suddenly, you can no longer compete financially. Your students pay an average of $20,000 a year for tuition (a significant discount, you might add) and now the SUNY down the road costs $0. Assuming the 11% loss in enrollment due to Excelsior, you’re looking at losing 165 students and $3.3 million in revenue.

How do you decide what gets cut? The average full-time professor makes about $114,000 a year, so losing $3.3 million means losing 28 professors’ salaries. Maybe you cut your underperforming programs first, but then you’ll start losing additional students because you no longer offer their major. 165 students gone means 165 fewer families visiting and sending money to their children to spend in the town, 165 fewer students purchasing books through your bookstore, not to mention the additional loss of the room and board costs the student pay as well. A $3.3 million revenue cut is a huge loss. How can your already struggling school come back from that? You start to think about closing. You are the next Dowling.

New York State already has a program in place for residents that offers monetary support for students called the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). This program allows those who receive it to put the assistance towards any public or private, not-for-profit school in state. The income caps are lower, but the flexibility it offers students in choice of school, to me, makes this program much stronger. Why not take the $163 million annually being dedicated to this program and integrate it into TAP? This is the argument of many college presidents who have spoken out against Excelsior. They note the economic impact Excelsior will have on communities, the taxpayers of New York, and the educational opportunities available to residents.

College Presidents Urge Lawmakers to Treat All Students Equally, Expand Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), Reject Excelsior | CICU

I want to be supportive of this program. I’ve always identified as a Democrat, based on the idea that, as someone who experiences many privileges, I therefore need to use my power to support those who have less than I do. I grew up with parents who supported education first. They were able to send me to an independent high school and a private, out-of-state college. I had financial aid for both high school and college, meaning that I graduated with a reasonable amount of debt, without having to take out private loans to afford my education.

But I’ve also been on the other side. I’ve worked at a college that struggled to enroll students and, in my last few months of employment, laid off 18 faculty and staff members due to financial difficulties stemming from low enrollment. I have felt the guilt of knowing that my failure to enroll students means my coworkers get lower-than-average retirement contributions and smaller raises. I’ve taken just one week of my eligible vacation time because I was too worried about enrollment to take time off, even in the summer—and I’ve had to watch my colleagues defend themselves and their programs against budget cuts and complete elimination in the face of reduced revenue. Supporting affordable higher education is an important and laudable goal. We have to work harder to find a way to do this that doesn’t put many at a disadvantage.

Caroline lives in Philadelphia and wants her own jawns.

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