Testimony to the Committee on Higher Education Of the Council of the City of New York

Harold Stolper

Issue: Int. No. 1138 - to establish a task force to review proposals for restoring free tuition at the City University of New York.

Summary of our testimony:

  • Labor market data shows that a college degree offers the only real security from unemployment and a path to higher wages.
  • New CSS polling data shows New Yorkers strongly support making college more affordable as an urgent priority. But college affordability challenges go beyond the cost of tuition.
  • Low levels of college readiness reinforce financial barriers and limit completion.
  • CUNY tuition and aid policy has steered the neediest students into 2-year rather than 4-year colleges.
  • Affordability policies must ensure that the neediest New Yorkers are not steered to 2-year colleges if they are capable of succeeding at 4-year colleges, complemented with counseling and financial support for all economically disadvantaged students (applications and enrollment support, subsidized MetroCards, tuition waivers), and remediation initiatives for those who enter college under-prepared.
  • CSS is working with other organizations, including the Urban Youth Collaborative to develop a comprehensive college affordability proposal aimed at increasing the chances of college enrollment and successful completion for all New Yorkers. We strongly support the bill under consideration today.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on behalf of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS). CSS is currently working on a report that will propose a new college affordability plan for New York, and we are here today to discuss some of the findings.

A college degree offers the only real security from unemployment and a path to higher wages.

The number of jobs available for those without some college education has plummeted, due to technological advancements and competition from cheap overseas labor, among other factors. (1) Nationally, the unemployment rate drops significantly with higher levels of educational attainment, from 5.4 percent for those with only a high school diploma to 2.6 percent for those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher. A college degree becomes even more valuable in insulating workers against the adverse effects of an economic downturn; during the Great Recession, the unemployment rate for those with only a high school diploma rose by nearly 6 points, compared to a 2.7 point increase for those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher.

A college degree also offers the only real chance at higher wages: workers with a Bachelor’s degree or higher earn, on average, around 80 percent more than workers with only a high school diploma. College degrees are also associated with higher earnings for all racial groups.

New CSS polling data shows New Yorkers strongly support making college more affordable as an urgent priority. But college affordability challenges go beyond the cost of tuition.

According to the Unheard Third, CSS’ own scientific survey of all New Yorkers focused on the experiences and views of low-income New Yorkers, 81 percent of parents said their own children would need a four-year degree or higher in order to sustain a family of their one day. After the minimum wage, low-income New Yorkers viewed making college affordable as the best way to help them get ahead economically.

More than forty percent of respondents cited the cost of tuition as the biggest barrier to both entering and completing a four-year college. Net price—which is just tuition and fees net of financial aid—is an obvious starting point for thinking about college affordability. But net price does not capture the breadth of the college affordability problem; other commonly cited barriers include the cost of living including food and housing, and low levels of academic preparation that force students to spend more time and incur more college costs.

Another component of the affordability problem is the difficulty obtaining the necessary information to plan for smart college decisions in advance. Planning the best way to finance unmet need through a complicated web of public and private loans is an incredibly demanding problem that can discourage prospective applicants from going to college altogether or end up at a more affordable school of lower quality. Moreover, many students lack the information on the net costs and benefits of attending different college programs, irrespective of how they will finance unmet need. This information problem is exacerbated by a needlessly complex federal financial aid system that makes it prohibitively difficult for many families to predict their federal aid and unmet need and thus deters some students from applying altogether.

Low levels of college readiness reinforce financial barriers and limit completion.

It should be clear that net price is a major factor contributing to the perception that college is unaffordable, but there are also other salient barriers including the cost of financing an education over time, obtaining the relevant information to make informed decisions, and the complexity of the financial aid system. Among lower income families, the effect of these barriers is under-enrollment, under-matching (i.e. enrollment in less selective colleges than students are capable of succeeding at), and under-preparedness among students who went through high school thinking college would not affordable for them.

Rates of college readiness among high school graduates in New York City and State are low.  Among public high school students, just 38 percent statewide, and 27 percent citywide are deemed to have “college ready” skills after 12th grade, according the Aspirational Performance Metric (APM) established by the New York City Department of Education in collaboration with the New York State Education Department, and CUNY. (2) This compares poorly to high school graduation rates of 76 percent and 68 percent in the state and city, respectively.

As a result of their under-preparedness, very high shares of New York City students are unable to gain acceptance to 4-year colleges, and are thus only eligible for 2-year schools. Students who end up enrolling in CUNY without having met APM benchmarks end up required to take non-credit bearing remedial courses, which soak up their limited financial aid, and generally make them less likely to graduate. This increases the likelihood of students leaving school in a worse position than they started, with no degree but often with significant student debt.

Moreover, the perception that college is unaffordable only encourages students who feel college is out of reach to under-prepare throughout their high school experience. The lack of clarity about whether a high school student will ever be able to afford college could be a barrier that keeps them from working hard enough to make themselves as college-ready as possible. 

CUNY tuition and aid policy has increasingly steered the neediest students into 2-year rather than 4-year colleges.

Over the five-year period spanning 2008-09 to 2013-14, the net price of attendance (tuition and fees less aid) for low-income aid applicants rose much faster at 4-year CUNY colleges  (55 percent) than at 2-year CUNY colleges (only 9 percent). Full-time enrollments moved in the opposite direction: enrollment growth among the lowest income aid applicants was relatively slow at 4-year colleges where price rose the fastest, while enrollment grew much faster for these students at 2-year colleges where price growth was minimal. While there are no doubt other factors influencing enrollment patterns over time, the strong negative correlation between rising net price and enrollment growth, coupled with faster net price growth at 4-year colleges, suggests that CUNY tuition/aid policy is increasingly steering the neediest families into 2-year colleges.

Even for low-income students who are sufficiently prepared to succeed at 4-year colleges, the perception that this path is unaffordable reduces the incentives to apply to more selective colleges where the likelihood of long-term success would be greater. This results in “under-matching” between student and institution. A recent college scholarship program in Nebraska has provided strong evidence that making college more affordable can reduce this under-matching, leading to not only higher enrollment rates at 4-year colleges among sufficiently prepared low-income students, but also higher completion rates. Program benefits were largest among demographic groups with historically low levels of college attendance, including students of color and those with low standardized test scores.


Affordability policies must ensure that the neediest New Yorkers are not steered to 2-year colleges if they are capable of succeeding at 4-year colleges, complemented with a range of evidence-based support systems.

Affordability policy needs to address more than just tuition and the cost of living, but also target informational barriers that make it hard for prospective students to map out their own path to college affordability starting in high school.

This is a particular challenge in New York City, where the graduation rates of our community colleges remain extremely low, and the rates of transfer to four-year schools are abysmal.  As a previous CSS report has highlighted, we are increasingly sending our black and Latino high school graduates into relatively less costly community colleges, where they have the least chance of succeeding.

Four specific sets of research-based programs should be considered as components to bolster the outcomes of any affordability initiatives.  They include:

  • Application and enrollment support for high school students – such as information packets and fee waivers to improve college matching; (3) and personalized text messages to prevent drop-offs from acceptance to enrollment. (4) These efforts have been shown to lead students to enroll in higher quality schools where they are more likely to succeed.
  • Remediation initiatives that move students quickly into credit-bearing courses. Far too many students at community colleges end up placed in remedial courses they do not bear credit, yet do utilize financial aid and other student resources, and generally reduce a student’s likelihood of progressing through college. In New York, the relatively new CUNY Start program, an intensive effort to move students out of remediation in one semester, has demonstrated very strong results in getting students into credit-bearing courses, and more likely to progress toward graduation.
  • On-campus support programs that include a range of counseling and other supports, such as the Accelerated Study in Associates Program (ASAP). Also at CUNY, ASAP was found to nearly double graduation rates of participating students compared to those in a control group. And because ASAP students progressed through college so much more quickly, their average cost per degree was notably lower. (5)
  • Subsidized MetroCards provided to students contingent on participating on other support services has proven to be one of the most successful components of the ASAP program.

CSS and allies are working to develop a robust college affordability proposal that will make college not only more accessible for all New Yorkers, but increase their chances of graduating and succeeding.

We are working on a report that will use new data and existing research to propose a college affordability package that improves access to college, but also works to ensure that students enroll in colleges where they are best equipped to succeed. New affordability policies also represent opportunities to package and incentivize the usage of programmatic efforts that will additionally improve on-campus retention and graduation rates, thus ensuring a stronger return on investment to any new infusion of public dollars.

CSS strongly supports the bill to establish a task force to review new college affordability proposals, and requests that our forthcoming proposal be given strong consideration.



  1. In 1973, only 28 percent of jobs required some postsecondary education and only 16 percent required a Bachelor’s degree or higher. In 2010, 59 percent required some postsecondary education and 32 percent required a Bachelor’s degree or higher. See https://www.technologyreview.com/s/538401/who-will-own-the-robots/ and http://economics.mit.edu/files/6613.
  2. The APM deems students “college ready” if they score at least a 75 and 80 on the English Language Arts and Mathematics Regents exams, respectively. The college ready designation also allows students to avoid entrance exams for possible remediation in non-credit bearing Math and English courses once enrolled at CUNY, and also play a strong role in determining whether students are candidates for 4-year or 2-year colleges.
  3. Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner, “Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low Income Students,”
  4. Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, March 2013.
  5. Benjamin L. Castleman and Lindsay C. Page, “Summer Nudging: Can Personalized Text Messages and Peer Mentor Outreach Increase College Going Among Low-Income High School Graduates?” Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness, updated October 2013.
  6. http://www.mdrc.org/publication/doubling-graduation-rates


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