In the fine print of Spitzer’s new budget is an intriguing proposal to offer free SUNY (or CUNY) tuition to qualified students from the Syracuse City School District. There is a growing discussion of this idea at Sean Kirst’s blog. The appeal of the plan has two sides: (1) it would give disadvantaged city students the security of a guaranteed shot at college, and (2) it might attract tuition-challenged suburbanites back to city neighborhoods — or at least, keep Syracusans from leaving the city.
This is an interesting idea that can be looked at in several ways, but I don’t know if it rises to the level of a plan; it’s unclear where the money for the “free” tuition would really come from. The Post-Standard story about the Spitzer plan contains the now-usual revelation of yet another SU partnership in the works with somebody or something, but especially in economic times like these, one has to reiterate, “Show me the money.” Especially when it concerns making promises that would require a pretty huge leap of faith for some people.
I’m a believer in leaps of faith (I have faith in faith?), but this idea tries to make a Syracuse City School District education attractive by dangling a really big carrot, rather than by making city schools attractive in and of themselves. This is not a flawed strategy in and of itself, but it doesn’t erase the very real perceptual hurdles (“All city schools suck”) or the practical hurdles (lower test scores, chaotic classroom environments, less classroom resources) that “pioneers” from the suburbs would have to overcome, nor does it erase the very real challenges that many inner-city kids face when attending college.
More below the flip…
I myself am a product of a remitted tuition scheme — it was all on the up-and-up, but to my parents, it felt like a brilliant scheme to get the kids somewhere they might not have otherwise gotten. Had Spitzer’s plan been floated when I was of college age, I’m not sure that my parents would have picked up stakes and moved into the city, although if the Plan A (a parent working at the local U. for the remitted tuition, an employee benefit) had not been available, they very well might have been open to Spitzer’s idea as Plan B. I can only guess what my parents would say about it now. My father grew up in the city of Syracuse, but my mother’s family moved out when she was a kid, and all she has to say about city living now are bad old memories about traffic, nosy neighbors living too packed in, and nasty landlords who wouldn’t allow her to play in the yard of her own apartment house. Old memories, or prejudices can die hard. But I suspect that most of the suburban “pioneers” would not be people from the wealthier suburban districts like F-M. They’d probably be people in the same financial and social position as my family was. Are these the newcomers that the planners are expecting, or are they expecting someone else?
As for the other appealing aspect of the plan — getting the city’s first-generation college students into college — I probably can speak to that as well. No one in my immediate family had ever been to college, so I know just a little about the reality that getting into a college and thriving there are two very different things. (This harks back to the recent discussions here prompted by Alfred Lubrano’s Limbo.) Getting into college is not the end of the rainbow, it’s only the beginning — and I wonder if the SUNY schools and especially the private colleges mentioned in the PS story would really be equipped to handle a significant influx of students of non-white-collar backgrounds, in terms of mentoring programs and other services — and not just for traditional minority populations, either. Otherwise, you’d see a lot of attrition (and silent attrition — that is, the students who just quietly limp along) — one hopes not “attrition-by-design” as a means of cutting the true costs of a politically attractive program. Sure, schools like SU did beautifully under the GI Bill and its influx of non-traditional students, but that was a different era (and a more economically prosperous one). Would they be prepared to handle something like that again?
The best thing even an unfunded proposal can do is to change the terms of the community (city, state, etc) discussion on a variety of topics: higher ed, the true quality of city schools, what it takes to make a city turn around, class and achievement, etc. At the very least, Spitzer’s proposal offers people a new angle from which to approach these issues.