Tuition-Free SUNY and CUNY: Who Benefits, Who Doesn’t, and How Free Is It After All?

D. Bruce Johnstone
University at Buffalo
Rockefeller Institute of Government


Director’s Note: We are delighted to welcome D. Bruce Johnstone as a senior fellow at the Rockefeller Institute. Professor Johnstone is distinguished professor of higher and comparative education emeritus at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He brings to the Institute enormous expertise on international comparative higher education finance, governance, and policy formation as well as extraordinary practical experience in administering great higher education institutions — including terms as vice president for administration at the University of Pennsylvania, president of the State University College of Buffalo, and chancellor of the State University of New York. In this brief observation, he considers several questions relating to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent proposal to make the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY) tuition-free for a wide range of families and students. Given the importance of the proposal, we expect to publish additional viewpoints in the near future.

– Thomas L. Gais


Governor Andrew Cuomo, as part of his FY 2017-18 New York State (NYS) Budget proposals to the Legislature, introduced his Excelsior Scholarship Program. Estimated to cost $163 million, the program would make the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY) tuition free for full-time state resident undergraduates from families making under $125,000.

The politics of public college and university tuitions, as well as their amounts and rates of increase, vary greatly among the 50 states. But even where tuition and fees are a small part of the total costs to the family or the student, it is still tuition (even without the mandatory fees) that causes the most anxiety and political controversy. Governors and other state politicians thus resist tuition increases; urge cuts; or, in the case of Governor Cuomo’s proposal, the complete elimination of tuition (at least for some students).

To assess the Excelsior Scholarship proposal, this brief observation addresses several key questions:

  • How high, compared to other states, are tuitions and mandatory fees at SUNY and CUNY?
  • What are the potential effects of certain conditions in the proposal, especially the limitation of the grants to tuition for full-time students?
  • What is the effect of the scholarship program being the last grant dollar in — that is, applied only after deducting other federal and state grants from tuition?
  • How does the presumed increase in accessibility, persistence, and other benefits from the proposal compare to the expected benefits of spending the same amount on alternative policies and programs to the same ends?
  • What are the anticipated effects on the state’s independent college and university sector, which has long been a strong point in New York’s higher educational opportunities

Let us consider and attempt briefly to answer each of these questions:

1. How high, compared to other states, are the tuitions and mandatory fees in SUNY and CUNY?

Tuitions and mandatory fees differ in most states according to sector: lowest in community colleges, higher in comprehensive or master’s degree colleges, and highest at public research universities. In-state undergraduate tuitions and mandatory fees at public four-year colleges and universities for 2016-17 also vary by state: from the lowest (on average) in Wyoming ($5,060) and Florida ($6,360) to the highest in Vermont ($15,450) and New Hampshire ($15,650). The greatest differences by state are found among the so-called flagship universities, which range from the University of Wyoming (again, $5,060) to Penn State ($17,900).

New York’s public, in-state, four-year undergraduate tuitions and fees are below the College Board’s reported U.S. average of $9,650. SUNY averages $8,060 (with doctoral campuses higher than the colleges) and CUNY averages some $6,850. SUNY community college tuitions and fees vary among the 30 colleges but average $4,980, which is above the Board’s reported 2016-17 average, in-district, community college tuition and fees of $3,520. This is not to say that there are no legitimate worries about the costs facing parents and students in New York’s public systems of higher education. But SUNY and CUNY tuition fees — particularly with the off-setting, need-based, federal Pell and New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grants — do not seem to be at the heart of higher educational access or persistence issues in New York.

2. What are the potential effects of certain conditions in the proposal, especially the limitation to tuition and the exclusion of mandatory fees, as well as the limitation to students carrying at least 15 credit hours?

The limitation of the proposed scholarship program to cover only tuition omits mandatory fees that, especially in the SUNY system, contribute significantly to the costs facing families.[1]

At the University at Buffalo, for example, in-state undergraduate tuition is $6,470. This amount is covered by the governor’s proposal for families with adjusted gross incomes under $125,000. But the fees at Buffalo (which admittedly are the highest in SUNY), amount to another $3,103, for a total annual expense of tuition and mandatory fees of $9,573. The expense of tuition constitutes just two-thirds of the total, and that still does not include all of the other costs of attendance and student living, which are estimated at the University to be another $15,940.

The other significant limitation is the exclusion of part-time students — defined as any student carrying less than 15 credits per semester. That restriction will exclude many low-income students who have to be employed part-time or even full-time to afford living expenses, particularly at SUNY’s and CUNY’s community colleges.

3. What is the effect of the Excelsior Scholarship Program being effectively the last grant dollar in: that is, applied only after first deducting federal Pell and New York State TAP grants from the published tuition? 

The last grant dollar in stipulation means that the governor’s Excelsior Scholarship Program does nothing for the very low-income students who are eligible for maximum federal Pell ($5,920) and NYS TAP ($5,165). The total of these grants exceeds SUNY and CUNY tuitions ($6,470 and $6,330, respectively), so the Excelsior Scholarship would not begin until the combined Pell and TAP grants — falling with rising family incomes — go below SUNY and CUNY tuitions. This begins at family incomes of a little over $50,000, at which point the Excelsior Scholarships begin to supplement Pell and TAP until Pell grants fall to zero after about $68,000 adjusted gross family income, and TAP after about $98,000. At this point, according to the governor’s initial proposal, the Excelsior Scholarships would cover all resident undergraduate tuitions through family incomes of $125,000.

Although these provisions may change as the enabling legislation is completed, early projections from the SUNY system administration estimated that about 80,000 current students might meet the eligibility criteria of carrying at least 15 credit hours and coming from families with incomes below $125,000. The effect of limiting the Excelsior Scholarships to the last grant in could cut the number of actual recipients by one-half. This is not to suggest that a new means-tested state scholarship program should be anything other than a last grant dollar in. Indeed, to not discount the proposed Excelsior Scholarships by Pell and TAP grants would greatly — and needlessly — increase the cost to the New York State taxpayers. But this provision, particularly in combination with the exclusion of part-time students, also limits its significance to a somewhat narrow band of family incomes and excludes many of New York State’s neediest students, who may still need support for living expenses.

4. How does the increase in SUNY and CUNY accessibility, persistence, and other benefits presumably made possible by the initially estimated $163 million Excelsior Scholarship Program compare to other state expenditures with similar aims?

This is a difficult question and requires more sensitive analysis than possible in this brief observation. A proposal at the federal level for free public undergraduate education — such as Bernie Sanders’ 2016 proposal for the federal government to induce the 50 states to eliminate tuition for all public in-state undergraduates — has a clearer trade-off. The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association estimated the net tuition revenue (i.e., net of federal and state grants) for all of public higher education in all 50 states in fiscal 2015 to have been nearly $21.5 billion — much or most of which would have been lost each year to the Sanders proposal. Even as a rough approximation, the added annual governmental expenditures required to replace public tuitions would seem to be excessive and wasteful — especially when compared to a much less costly increase in the well-targeted, but increasingly insufficient, federal Pell Grant Program that would have similar aims.

Alternatives to the governor’s proposed $163 million Excelsior Scholarship Program are less obvious. They could, however, include a fiscally commensurate boost to the existing state TAP grant or a replacement of some of the recent cuts to SUNY or CUNY’s operating budgets, which would greatly assist the campuses in their own student retention programs as well as lessen the need to respond to budget cuts with occasional, steep increases in tuitions and fees.

5. What is the anticipated consequence to the state’s independent college and university sector?

According to the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, the more than 100 independent, or private nonprofit, institutions of higher education in New York prepare 52 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, 71 percent of master’s degrees, and 79 percent of doctoral and advanced professional degrees in the state. By all measures, these colleges and universities enrich both the academic excellence and the higher educational opportunities in New York. Many of them, particularly those lacking large endowments and deep and affluent applicant pools, are struggling financially. Moving toward free public undergraduate higher education will worsen the already precarious competitive balance between the sectors. While a case might be made for the proposed Excelsior Scholarship Program to the degree that it advances student access and persistence, it is unclear how these aims are advanced by simply shifting students from an independent college to either SUNY or CUNY on the basis of a little extra state aid to a cadre of students.


In short, the proposed Excelsior Scholarship Program touches on a promising political agenda and would clearly benefit some New York students and families. But the benefits to student access and persistence seem problematic, especially when considering the limited benefits of the program to the most financially needy students, and when compared to other ways that the state could advance these aims. And the likely unintended and negative consequences to New York State’s independent colleges and universities merit concern and further study.

D. Bruce Johnstone is a senior fellow at the Rockefeller Institute, as well as distinguished service professor of higher and comparative education emeritus at the State University of New York at Buffalo and chancellor emeritus of the State University of New York. Before retirement from full-time teaching in 2006, he was director of the Center for Comparative and Global Studies in Education and specialized in higher education finance, governance, and policy formation. Johnstone also has held the posts of vice president for administration at the University of Pennsylvania and president of the State University College of Buffalo. He holds a B.A. in economics from Harvard, an M.A.T. from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and a Ph.D. in higher education from the University of Minnesota.


[1] The distinction between tuitions, fees, and mandatory fees is imprecise. The term tuition in American usage (which the British must refer to as a tuition fee as the term “tuition” alone simply means “instruction”), generally refers to a mandatory charge levied upon all students or their parents covering some portion of the underlying costs of instruction. A fee most often refers to a charge that is associated with an institutionally provided service that is partaken of by some but not all students, such as residence halls, dining services, art supplies, or private music lessons and which might, in other circumstances, be privately provided. A mandatory fee suggests a charge levied on all or most students to recover expenses associated with a particular institutionally provided good or service that is deemed essential but is not strictly instructional, such as health service, recreation, transportation, or internet connectivity. Mandatory fee may also refer to a one-time charge such an application or graduation fees where the association between the charge and the service is deemed to be important, but appropriately levied on all students. Most mandatory fees could be rolled into a comprehensive tuition charge — which observation suggests that the distinction between tuition and a mandatory fee is at least partly political. Any imposition or increase in tuition continues to be resisted by those who believe that public higher education ought (at least ideally) to be free, whereas a fee more nearly resembles a service that might have been privately purchased, thus meeting less resistance. State politicians, then, can more freely relegate the imposition of (or increase in) fees to university boards and administrations, especially if they can point to the added benefit supposedly attributable to the added fee. For example, this distinction allows the SUNY university centers to achieve indirectly their long sought goal of obtaining differential tuition: that is, to charge higher mandatory fees than the SUNY colleges in spite of a state law mandating similar undergraduate tuitions at all SUNY four-year institutions.