Private colleges express concerns about what free college means for them

Cite concerns about enrollment and revenue declines

"If I'm missing 30 students, that could put us in a hole because of something I have no control over," says Gary A. Olson, president of Daemen College

Like other private colleges in New York, Olson says his institution could see a devastating budget shortfall resulting from the state's new free college plan, Katherine Mangan reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

In April, New York announced the country's first program to offer a tuition-free education at four-year public colleges and universities, albeit with strings attached. Students are required to live and work in New York after graduation for the same number of years that they received assistance—if they don't, the scholarship converts to a loan.

Enrollment at private colleges was estimated to fall by 7% to 15% under a free tuition plan proposed by Hillary Clinton, according to a study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

Private college leaders argue that the New York plan brings extraordinary financial uncertainty for them, suggesting that students would be quick to take advantage of the plan without carefully considering the conditions. 

"We're not in a position to compete with 'free,'" says Mary Beth Labate, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York.

To make up for lost students, private colleges may need to bolster their out-of-state recruiting efforts, according to the Georgetown study.

Wooing long-distance applicants is turning into a "recruitment war"

The state of New York did make an effort to respond to concerns from private colleges. Students hailing from families beneath the income threshold for the program may qualify for up to $3,000 for the cost of a private college. However, the program would require the college to match that amount in financial aid as well as freeze the student's tuition rate for the duration of their attendance. Private college leaders in the state pushed back on this program, highlighting the additional administrative workload it would cause for them.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office argues that the state's more than 940,000 students who qualify would now be able to worry less about the college cost burden and can focus more on graduating. Meanwhile, other states like Rhode Island and California are considering similar proposals (Mangan, Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/12). 

Related: How one university doubled its freshman enrollment over the past decade

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