May 30, 2017
With just one signature on one bill, Andrew Cuomo has turned the entire higher education system in New York on its head.
New York Private Colleges Face Free-Tuition Challenge to Fall Enrollment

The enactment of legislation that will make tuition free at New York state-owned colleges and universities won’t come into effect until 2019, but it’s already making waves throughout society and, more significantly, in the enrollment offices of higher education institutions in New York. Cuomo’s bill has the power to change the college game for many, which may very well result in many universities completely overhauling their approaches to not only enrollment, but budgeting and their overall approach towards incoming students.

Cuomo’s proposal is to provide free tuition for students in New York state with an annual household income of less than $125,000. The program would be available for both two-year and four-year students, and the focus of the initiative is to help middle-class college students - those people who struggle with the financial requirements of a college education, but whose annual income precludes them from receiving a significant amount of federal financial aid. This deal comes at a great time for young people, many of whom are losing faith in the college system due to difficulty in finding relevant and rewarding work after graduation.

On the surface, this sounds like a great plan. However, there are some drawbacks. The fact that the bill targets the middle class means that the low-income families who really need help with college funding but already qualify for fully subsidized tuition won’t benefit from Cuomo’s arrangement in any way. Additionally, the program only covers tuition, meaning that any other costs - such as books, university fees, meal plans and room and board - would still be the responsibility of the student. Lastly, the program stipulates that any student who benefits from the free tuition would have to remain in New York and find employment within the state for the same amount of time as they received free tuition. In other words, a four-year student who receives free tuition must spend their next four years living in New York; failure to do so would result in the “free tuition” converting into a loan that must be repaid.

In spite of the drawbacks of Cuomo’s proposal, it’s not hard to see how this could potentially hurt four-year private colleges. Most families are ill-prepared to handle the burdens of a four-year education at a private college under the best of circumstances. If there are cheaper options out there, families of all income levels will be sure to explore those avenues before considering private colleges. Furthermore, any decrease in enrollment may result in the school’s entire budget being thrown into disarray, which would have long-reaching ramifications benefits that go well beyond recruitment.

There’s also the issue of which type of student will be attracted by the allure of free tuition. New York state schools will surely see an increase in applications and, potentially, in enrollment. It’s possible that the New York state schools will end up accepting a higher caliber of student than they once did, simply because there are more well-qualified applicants than there used to be. This could result in private colleges receiving more applications from students that are not up to the accepted private college standard. However, since those are the schools that stand to suffer greatly as a result of any dip in enrollment, they may be forced to accept students that otherwise would be unable to qualify for acceptance. Worse yet, the uncertainty associated with all of this makes it very difficult for private colleges to plan for the future, at a time in which many schools are investing in on-campus amenities as a way to attract new students, particularly when it comes to lucrative sports like football and basketball.

However, where there is a threat, there is also opportunity. And these private colleges have the potential to change the game in their own way. By providing true value to those students that are willing to pay for a four-year private education, maybe private colleges have a chance to stay relevant in these changing times. After all, while free tuition is undoubtedly attractive, there are many options available for eager students to pay for a college education.

Targeting Community College Students One of the more notable ways in which four-year private colleges can thrive in this new environment is by targeting students that attend a two-year state community college and seek a destination to complete their bachelor’s degree. Many students already enter college with this exact template in mind - figure out what they want to do during their two years in community college, then move to a four-year school that specializes in that discipline.

It’s the most natural way a private college can attract people who have attended school for free for two years and that are prepared to pay for their final two years. Private colleges can help themselves here by providing real resources to their students, such as job placement programs, career counseling and continuing education resources.

Targeting Part-Time Students For all of Cuomo’s best intentions, his proposal neglects a large part of the college population. The New York plan only applies to full-time students who take 15 credits per semester. That means that anyone who wants to go at their own pace - say, a full-time employee who attends classes at night - is left paying their own way.

Again, this is a way in which private colleges have an advantage. They can market their flexible class schedules and flexible payment options to interested students who are unable to attend full-time. Coupled with career development options and the potential to make valuable industry connections, this would be a very attractive package to anyone who wants to pursue a college education in their spare time.

Transfer Compatibility

Anyone who’s transferred between colleges is all too familiar with the difficulty that comes with transferring credits from one school to the other. Many students painfully discover that their hard work at their first school is incompatible with their new school, resulting in additional classes and additional expenses.

Private colleges that make it a point to work with incoming transfer students to take the credits they earned at a free-tuition state school will stand to benefit in the newly designed college landscape. This will make those private colleges more attractive to students who enjoyed their free college experience, but feel that they need a degree from a more well-known school to enter the job market. Additionally, those students will appreciate the fact that the school is working with them to reduce the time and money they’ll spend on their higher education. In an era where universities often play the role of the bad guy, this would be a definite step in the right direction.

Private colleges can also partner with outside organizations to help paying students in reducing their financial obligations, while simultaneously enhancing the preparedness of incoming students. For example, Onondaga Community College has partnered with the Affordable College Public Benefit Corporation in order to expand career and bachelor's degree options for their students at the private colleges that join their transfer student marketplace. This arrangement helps students to get a more relevant degree in less time, while private colleges and community colleges alike benefit from transparency, partnerships with other schools and a boost to their reputations.

Although free education is very difficult for anyone to truly dismiss, there are plenty of opportunities for private colleges to position themselves in a way that will endear themselves to students that have the option of free tuition. As is the case in any sort of higher education endeavor, it is always important to note that students have a wealth of options available to them to pay for their education. Additionally, the universities themselves may stand to benefit from resources that enable them to work directly with students to reduce their college costs.