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Free tuition possible again?

Andrew Cuomo grants hope to low-income families and immigrants with the promise of free CUNY/SUNY tuition

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal last week for free tuition at City University of New York (CUNY) and State University of New York (SUNY) schools has roots going back nearly two centuries — to 1847 and the founding of the Free Academy of the City of New York. It became City College, also later dubbed “the poor man’s Harvard.”

For Jewish immigrants to New York and their families, the concept made a huge difference — for them and for New York City and New York State, along with the United States and world.

It was a highly attractive centerpiece of the presidential campaign last year of US Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, originally from Brooklyn, who started in college at his home public college, Brooklyn College.

He was with Mr. Cuomo when the governor announced his plan on January 3, at a relatively new public college in New York City, LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, founded in 1968.

And it’s as important and as relevant in Kalamazoo in the middle of the US as it is in New York City, Long Island and New York State. Indeed, the New York Times Magazine ran an extensive article in September on the success of a program that began in 2005 in that Michigan city through which unnamed donors pay tuition to Michigan’s public schools of higher education, “for every student who graduated from the [Kalamazoo] district’s high schools. All of a sudden, students who had little hope of higher education saw college in their future. Called the Kalamazoo Promise, the program…would be the most inclusive, most generous scholarship program in America.”

The vision is brilliant. And it’s very American — integral to the ideal that public education should be widely provided, not be an exclusive benefit of a privileged few.

I’ve been so fortunate for many decades to be a professor at one of the four-year public colleges on Long Island, the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, and I’ve also taught as a part-time adjunct at two-year Suffolk County Community College, also on Long Island. I’ve seen first-hand, again and again, students gaining from the life-changing opportunities that education can provide. And it’s not just they who benefit. The gain is societal.

Last year, SUNY/Old Westbury celebrated its 50th anniversary at an event at which 50 graduates were honored — women and men deeply involved in enhancing Long Island, the state, the nation and world. So many had the title “doctor” in front of their names, and are prominent in fields from science to music to business to government to education to media to health and on and on.

Students who are first-in-their-families to go to college are highly represented at both Old Westbury and Suffolk Community. It’s difficult going to graduation at SUNY/Old Westbury and holding back tears when one sees students — last year, for example, a woman, a refugee from war-torn Aleppo in Syria who studied journalism with me, and my Latino students, from the largest new immigrant group to the US –going onto the platform at a commencement that truly commences their entry as valuable citizens.

The Free Academy was founded, notes the CUNY website, “to provide children of immigrants and the poor access to free higher education based on academic merit alone.” Its first president, Dr. Horace Webster, described it as “the experiment” as to “whether the children of the people, the children of the whole people, can be educated; and whether an institution of the highest grade, can be successfully controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few.”

“City College,” it continues, “thus became one of the nation’s great democratic experiments, and it remains today one of its great democratic achievements. Even in its early years, the Free Academy showed tolerance for diversity, especially in comparison to the private universities in New York City.”

The website also notes: “In the years when top-flight private schools were restricted to the children of the Protestant establishment, thousands of brilliant individuals (including Jewish students) attended City College because they had no other option.”

It tells of its many graduates who have won Nobel Prizes and, “Like City students today, they were the children of immigrants and the working class, and often the first of their families to go to College.”

In announcing his plan last week to cover the tuition of students accepted at a state or city college or university in the state — provided their families earn no more than $100,000 a year in 2017, $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 in 2019 — Governor Cuomo said: “This is a message that is going to provide hope and optimism for working-class families all across the state.”

The governor continued: “This society should say, ‘We’re going to college because you need college to be successful.’”

Senator Sanders added: “Today what Governor Cuomo is proposing is a revolutionary idea for higher education. And it’s an idea that is going to reverberate not only throughout the state of New York but throughout this country.”

When I graduated high school in 1959, my local public college in Queens, Queens College, was free. But now, like the rest of CUNY and SUNY, there’s tuition which has risen and risen through the years. The budgets of CUNY and SUNY have been shifting with tuition increasingly rising and government support decreasing. For SUNY’s four-year schools, tuition has gone up every year for the past five years. Many of my students work not one but two and some even three jobs to get through school.

The Cuomo plan will need the support of the New York State Legislature to become reality — as it should.

Kenneth LaValle of Port Jefferson, long-time chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, comments that he and his colleagues will “thoroughly” consider it “to ensure this measure truly helps to offset the extraordinary debt brought on by undergraduate college costs for middle-class families in New York.” His district includes much of eastern Long Island. He received his master’s degree in education from SUNY at New Paltz.

About the Author
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York at Old Westbury who has specialized in investigative reporting for more than 50 years. He is the host of the TV program “Enviro Close-Up with Karl Grossman,” (, the writer and presenter of numerous TV documentaries and author of seven books.
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