Mount students vs. free college tuition

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Students at the College of Mount Saint Vincent are concerned that a plan to offer free tuition at city and state colleges would come at the expense of small independent schools such as theirs.

A dozen Mount students traveled to Albany to speak with state legislators on Feb. 14 against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to grant free tuition at SUNY and CUNY colleges to families earning up to $125,000 per year. They were among thousands of their peers who came to the state capital as part of the New York Student Aid Alliance Advocacy Day, organized by the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities.

Instead of free tuition at CUNY and SUNY, the Mount activists called for increased funding to the Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, Higher Education Opportunity Program, or HEOP, and other similar programs.

“I wanted to speak with legislators in person so I could share my personal story of how the TAP has influenced my academic career. It has influenced and changed my life for the better,” freshman Robert Beirne told The Press in an email.  “It enabled me to be able to afford college when it looked like I might not be able to attend. The TAP enabled me to attend CMSV, which was my dream school.”

Damarcus Williams, Mount Saint Vincent’s student government president and a junior, said he went to Albany so lawmakers “could put faces to the lives that they are impacting.”

Williams, who does not receive aid through TAP or HEOP, said that he spoke with Assemblyman Victor Picchardo and an intern at Toby Stavisky’s office to argue that Cuomo’s plan would hurt his classmates, while programs such as HEOP are helping his peers succeed.

“He isn’t truly fixing the problem of higher education but creating a larger one,” Williams said in an email to The Press, “What is he doing to offer these students assistance once they are in college? Does he have [a] plan to retain these students and make sure that they are succeeding once they are in college? It looks great to boast about having a higher number of students in college due to this bill but will he be able to say that he has a higher number of succeeding college students?”

Graduate student Helen Amirian echoed Williams’ concerns. While the proposal represents a chance to reduce college debt, the proposal does not cover college expenses beyond tuition.

“Financial aid, while putting the student into debt, at least offered refunds that provided a stipend for working parents to use towards food, childcare, etc. I think that will actually leave some student parents with even less opportunity than before,” Amirian said in an email.

Cia Kessler, an English professor at Mount Saint Vincent and director of the school’s HEOP program, accompanied students to Albany. HEOP offers academic support to lower income students and first-generation college students.

Kessler said the free tuition plan was “sort of” a slap to private institutions and a suggestion that “our tuition was excessive and we should think about lowering our tuition.” She added that half of bachelor’s degrees granted in the state come from independent schools.

Mount Saint Vincent has a 90 percent retention rate of its HEOP students from freshman to sophomore year, where they are most vulnerable to dropping out of college, she said.

“Through programs like HEOP we are serving a population that is not well served in the state. [Cuomo] also gave the impression that this would be a boom somehow to the middle class and many of the HEOP program directors feel that it would be much for effective for him to raise TAP and do other things that could be shared across the board,” said Kessler.

“The average family income of students who go to independent colleges in New York State is lower—lower—[than] the average family’s... going to SUNY and CUNY institutions,” said Mount Saint Vincent president Charles Flynn, who shared the same concerns as Kessler.

Flynn said he had questions about how Cuomo’s plan would be funded and implemented—and about the governor’s motives.

“When the governor made his proposal, he was standing next to Bernie Sanders for a reason. He didn’t have any members of the state legislature there. In my view, this proposal is not about good government in New York. It is not about good public policy. And, it isn’t actually even about opportunity for the kids he is ostensibly interested in serving,” said Flynn in a telephone interview.

Cuomo’s announcement of the plan earlier this year, as he stood next to Bernie Sanders, was widely viewed as an attempt to boost the governor’s potential 2020 presidential bid.

According to a study released last month by the University of California at Berkeley, Mount Saint Vincent tied for third place on economic mobility for students. The college had a 77.8 percent retention rate and a four-year graduation rate of 39 percent in 2015, according to a website run by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Tuition for the 2017-2018 school year will be $35,620 for a full-time student, while housing costs are likely to add another $9,500, according to the Mount website.

“I was so proud of them,” Kessler said of the trip to Albany with students. “It was wonderful to see. They could see what it really meant to be a citizen, that they have a voice. It was an extraordinary day.”

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