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Can New York afford to offer tuition-free education at CUNY and SUNY schools?

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The primary goal of most high school seniors — and their parents — is to enter the college or university of their choice with as few expenses as possible.

This has not changed over time. Incoming freshmen look for every scholarship, every grant, every fellowship they can.

What has changed is the increasing need to seek out these opportunities before starting school. Tuition and related costs have skyrocketed over the past few decades, and receiving a college education is becoming nothing but wishful thinking for a growing number of young people.

State Assemblyman James G. Skoufis, D-99th District, Woodbury, wants to make the dreams of college-bound students come true. Earlier this year, he introduced legislation titled Tuition-Free NY.

As its name implies, it would offer tuition-free education at City University of New York and State University of New York institutions. Students who participate in the program would be required to give at least 250 hours of community service each year and agree to live and work in New York state for at least five years once they graduate.

“Soaring college costs and high interest loans are making it more and more difficult for our students to get ahead in life. We need to change the equation so that truly affordable education is within reach for all New Yorkers,” Assemblyman Skoufis said in a news release issued by his office in January. “Giving an incentive to keep college graduates here in New York while we build the jobs of the future is vital to our local and state economy. Instead of each student sending tens of thousands of dollars to big bank loan lenders, that money will now be spent in our communities. … The volunteer service that will be generated by Tuition-Free NY will assist our charities, nonprofits and communities in a way that we’ve never seen before — all making a real difference in the lives of New Yorkers.”

This program is similar to one proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and approved last month by the New York State Legislature as part of the 2014-15 budget. That plan offers full-tuition scholarships to students studying science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics at a CUNY or SUNY school who agree to remain in New York for at least five years upon graduation.

The difference between Gov. Cuomo’s plan and Assemblyman Skoufis’s bill is that the STEM-specific scholarships will only be offered to students who rank academically in the top 10 percent of the state. And the STEM-scholarship students would not have to perform community service as part of their tuition deal.

Students entering a STEM program at a CUNY or SUNY school could still have their tuitions covered through Assemblyman Skoufis’s legislation if they agree to provide at least 125 hours of community service each year. These would likely be STEM students who did not rank in the top 10 percent.

Implementing this plan would obviously make higher education more affordable for New York students and their families. It also would provide a source of volunteer work for nonprofit groups and charitable organizations. And it would keep many of New York’s best and brightest graduates within the state to help rebuild the economy.

But the plan would require about $1.5 billion up front, and it’s anyone’s guess how it would be funded. This year’s state budget already imposed a $300 tuition increase for SUNY schools, the fourth such hike in as many years.

Before approving Assemblyman Skoufis’s plan, legislators must identify how they intend to finance tuition-free education at all CUNY and SUNY schools for as many students wishing to participate. They also should demonstrate that they can keep college costs from continuing to climb and that they are committed to creating an environment in the state more conducive to job growth. Getting students to agree to stay in New York won’t do them any good if their employment prospects remain grim.

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