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What Biden's Tuition-Free Community College Proposal Could Mean for New York

MEGAN ZEREZ, HOST: Last night in his joint address to congress, President Biden announced his plan to make community college tuition free. But even without the cost of tuition, a degree may still be out of reach for many low income New Yorkers. Eli Dvorkin is the Editorial and Policy Director at the Center for an Urban Future. He says that there’s a lot at stake for the thousands of New Yorkers without a college degree.

ELI DVORKIN: Community college is the doorway into higher education for so many New Yorkers from lower income backgrounds. And, you know, the evidence has shown consistently that a CUNY credential can lead to enormous gains and economic mobility.

ZEREZ: Free tuition -- It's not a new thing for New York. Up until 1976, you could attend any one of the two or four year colleges in the CUNY system without paying tuition. Today, that's not that's not really the case. What's changed since then?

DVORKIN: Well, that's right. I mean, the city still has open enrollment for its community colleges. But the tuition bill is pretty high. It's actually one of the higher tuition rates in the nation for community college. Students are paying on average about $5200 a year. The challenge there is not just that tuition is expensive, but really that the cost of attending college -- the true cost of attending college -- includes so much more than tuition. From a MetroCard, or books or technology to just some of the basic living expenses -- like helping students keep a roof over their heads and have enough food so that they're attending class without being there on an empty stomach. You know, the reality in New York City is actually that the majority of community college students already attend CUNY tuition free. The challenge is that we still have alarmingly low graduation rates in our community colleges. You know, these days, for students in two year programs, within three years, only about 23 or 24% of students are actually going to earn that credential. That level is just too low. So while free tuition would help, it really won't get at the root of that problem, which is support for all of those non-tuition costs.

ZEREZ: Right. I mean, one of the programs that I think addresses some of those concerns, and I know that you've written about it, is the CUNY ASAP program, which is a program that provides support for some of those non-tuition costs of attending college.

DVORKIN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that's the key takeaway of ASAP. It's not only how effective it is, and it's arguably the most, most evidence based and effective College Success program in the nation. It's been proven to more than double graduation rates at CUNY community colleges. But the key to that success is that ASAP provides more than just support for tuition ASAP is really a wraparound set of supports that are directly targeted at college success. So ASAP includes in addition to the kind of hand holding that can be so helpful from academic advisors, it also includes a free MetroCard, it includes free textbooks. So it addresses some of those non tuition costs. All of that together leads to dramatic results.

ZEREZ: If you were managing, you know, this new influx of money, how would you advise lawmakers to direct it?

DVORKIN: For this investment to really move the needle on college success, to actually help a lot more students earn a credential, it could look a lot like ASAP. In fact, you know, if it was possible to use some of this money to make ASAP a universal program, it would have a transformative impact on CUNY community colleges. And we estimate that making ASAP universal could lead to more than 16,000 additional students graduating every year. But it's a little bit expensive. ASAP is not a cheap program to implement given the combination of supports that it requires. But the results really bear out the necessity of that investment because it has had such a demonstrated and proven impact on increasing graduation rates even for the students with the greatest barriers to college success.

ZEREZ: Eli Dvorkin is the Editorial and Policy Director at the Center for an Urban Future. Eli, thank you so much for being with us.

DVORKIN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.


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