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Cuomo provides few details about his free tuition plan

National Public Radio

As Gov. Andrew Cuomo talked about his plan for free tuition for most SUNY and CUNY students during his visit to Niagara Falls Monday, Niagara University's President sat in the front row, listening. He wanted details about what the plan does and what effect it might have on private schools like his, but there weren't any.

The governor also hasn't done much to explain how his free tuition plan will affect existing programs like Buffalo's Say Yes and fall freshman classes across the state.

Cuomo said a well-educated workforce is essential to the state's economic future. He said a college diploma has become essential to future employment the way a high school diploma was a half-century ago and companies interested in coming to New York want to know they can hire an educated workforce.

"You need a college education. We need you to have a college education," he said. "Well go out and buy it, pay for it yourself. Really? Average debt for most young people coming out of college $30,000. How do you start life with a $30,000 debt. That used to be a mortgage. But at least you had a house."

NU President Father James Maher said his graduates have debt around $20,000.

Maher said finances in the private colleges have to be watched because there is no state treasury fallback, although tuition can be somewhat restricted by what SUNY charges.

"We have to pay people who work at the university, you have to pay good faculty, you have to pay administrators, you have to manage your costs and people should never lose sight of the fact that there's a great value what places like Niagara and other independent, private universities bring," Maher said. "We contribute directly and indirectly $225 million to the local economy, the regional economy."

Niagara has 800 employees.

Tuesday's joint State Senate and Assembly budget hearing will focus on higher education issues, with Cuomo's tuition proposal expected to dominate the discussion. The Governor's proposal would make tuition to state higher education institutions free for students from families making less than $125,000.

He estimates the proposal will cost $163 million. However, some lawmakers have expressed doubts about that relatively modest price tag, while others argue room and board pose a bigger burden for students.  

State higher education leaders are expected to testify at the hearing, as are representatives from private universities and education advocacy organizations. Lawmakers hope to approve a final state budget before April 1.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.