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Will Free College Offer Catch Fire? NY Details Raise Doubts

ALBANY, N.Y. — Will New York’s first-in-the-nation free tuition program for middle-class college students spread to other states?

That’s the hope of proponents such as Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who made debt-free college a key talking point in their Democratic presidential campaigns. And that’s the prediction of its main champion, Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who called the plan a “model for the nation.”

But even as higher education experts applaud the concept of free tuition, they question finer points of New York’s plan and whether it’s a model that should be replicated elsewhere.

New York’s plan would cover in-state public college tuition for full-time students whose families earn $125,000 or less, a benefit that could extend to 32,000 students a year. Some experts are concerned the plan would actually do little to help the neediest students, whose tuition is already covered by other aid. They also question the plan not addressing other college costs beyond tuition.

And there has already been much debate about a restriction – added late in the negotiations – that recipients live and work in the state for the number of years they receive the benefit. If students move out of state, the money would be converted into a loan that must be repaid.

“Students are not going to plan for future debt because they’re going to think they don’t have any,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a Temple University expert on college affordability issues. “And then they’ll get a job in another state and they’re going to get smacked in the face literally by the state of New York for the bill.”

Goldrick-Rab said the restriction betrays students by changing the narrative from broad free college tuition to a workforce development initiative.

State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher says the controversy may be overblown, noting that about 85 percent of graduates from the state university system stay in New York after graduation anyway. “It kind of tamps down the drama,” she said.

Even Sanders, who has long advocated addressing the nation’s $1.2 billion student debt problem, acknowledged there are some aspects of New York’s plan he disagrees with. But he gave Cuomo and New York lawmakers credit for being first to tackle it.

“They have paved the way for other states to go forward, for the federal government to go forward to make public colleges and universities tuition free,” the Vermont senator said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I see that as a tremendous achievement, and we look forward to other states following New York.”

Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, agreed New York’s program is a strong political move but questioned an execution that “borders on gimmicky.”

He was particularly critical of New York’s “last-dollar” tuition-only setup, which would keep costs relatively low — an estimated $163 million a year — by paying the tuition only after awards from state and federal sources are applied. Students from families making $50,000 or less wouldn’t benefit because their tuition is already covered by other programs.

“Unfortunately, the neediest are left with nothing but a feel-good message,” Nassirian said.

SUNY’s Zimpher responded that the state’s program extends possibilities to kids on the “edge” of other financial assistance programs who might have never thought college was possible.

Other experts have noted that the New York program covers only tuition, with no additional money for other college fees such as room and board and books, which can be substantial. Over the course of four years at a State University of New York college, tuition would make up only about $26,000 of the total $83,000 tab.

Despite such uncertainties, Nassirian also gave credit to Cuomo, who has been mentioned as a possible 2020 presidential candidate, for giving the concept of free college new life.

“The pressure now builds,” he said, “for others in deep blue states to do something.”

The closest currently is Rhode Island, where Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo is pushing to make two years of public college free for residents, regardless of income. Tennessee and Oregon already offer free in-state tuition at community colleges.

Students at the University of Albany, part of the state university system, say that while grateful for New York’s plan, they are wary of its details.

“I hope it works,” said Nicole Pitt, a 21-year-old biology major. “But there’s going to be a lot of fine print, something hidden that’s going to come back and bite the person in the butt later.”

Cumorah Reed, a 19-year-old English major who also works at a pharmacy to pay for college, said her mother “lost her mind” with excitement when the proposal passed, only to learn the scholarship would only cover about a third of Reed’s annual costs.

“There’s still $12,000 for room and board. It’s double the tuition,” she said. “So that’s … fun.”

AP reporter Steve Peoples in New York contributed to this report.

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