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How tuition-free idea could affect private schools in the state

WBFO News file photo by Eileen Buckley

Governor Cuomo's proposed tuition-free plan for eligible students attending SUNY and CUNY schools is causing a buzz.  Many questions are surfacing as few details were released.  WBFO's senior reporter Eileen Buckley explores how this could affect smaller, private colleges in the region.

Private colleges weigh-in

“How are the thousands of students, almost a half a million actually in the State of New York, who study in independent colleges, how is this going to impact on them?” questions Cynthia Zane, President of Hilbert College in Hamburg.

Hilbert is a four-year, private, Catholic college where more than one thousand students are enrolled. 

Credit WBFO News file photo by Eileen Buckley
Cynthia Zane, President of Hilbert College in Hamburg.

Zane said she is pleased the Governor's plan would increase the chance for more students to seek higher education, but it could threaten smaller, private institutions. Zane pointed out that historically the state has always formed public private partnerships in higher education.

Credit WBFO News file photo by Eileen Buckley
Inside the auditorium at Hilbert College in Hamburg, NY.

Increase capacity at state schools

"I quite frankly am not sure how SUNY and CUNY could absorb, without a significant increase in their budgets, those larger number of students,” Zane remarked.

Over the last several years small colleges nationwide have been struggling with enrollment and debt. This Cuomo tuition-free plan for New York residents earning $125,000 or less is designed to ease the high cost of college.

“That this is a very well-intended program, but it hasn’t been fully thought out yet,” noted Gary Olson, President of Daemen College in Amherst.  

Credit WBFO News file photo by Eileen Buckley
Gary Olson, President of Daemen College in Amherst.

Daemen is a private school. Right now it has more than 2,700 graduate and undergraduate students enrolled. 

“And I do hope that the Governor and his people, as they move forward and are writing legislation to present to the legislature, that they remember that the private sector is literally a little more than 50-percent of his higher education system in his state and he needs to remember that. He doesn’t want to disadvantage one at the expense of the other,” stated Olson.

Both Olson and Zane describe how much financial aid is given through Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to students attending their schools.

“My biggest concern is that students are still going to have a choice, so right now, for example with TAP funds, a student is able to go to any institution in the state of New York and have those funds be applied to their tuition and it gives families, especially ones who are modest means, and it gives the private sector an opportunity to serve those students, sometimes high at-risk students in a way that has a positive impact on their lives,” Zane described.

Like Zane, Olson too said he's concerned about the "unintended consequences" from this tuition free plan.

“If money were put into the system just for the public sector and not for the private sector, as it would be if you just put it into financial aid, then you potentially could have a flood of students from the private sector over to the public and the problem with that is that the publics would not be able to handled that capacity, then they would inevitably have to go back to the state saying we need a lot more money to handle the capacity,” responded Olson.

Credit WBFO News file photo by Eileen Buckley
Daemen College on Main Street, Amherst, NY.

Economic impact

Daemen and Hilbert also provide economic impacts in their communities.

“We have an economic impact each year of $130-million and we are just one little college. If all of a sudden we didn’t exist that would be a major impact for the economy,” Olson noted.   

“We’re quite frankly an economic driver. Hilbert has over 500 total employees, by head count with adjuncts, coaches, student workers. We add an over $35-million impact on the Hamburg community and I’m one of hundreds of private colleges that have that same impact,” Zane explained. 

Zane said she is expecting private college presidents to lobby the Governor to tell their story as this proposal public tuition-free plan unfolds in Albany that would need approval from state lawmakers.

Zane tells us 'hang on', it could be a bumpy ride. 

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