Remitted tuition for city residents

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.

5 thoughts on “Remitted tuition for city residents

  1. Phil

    I’m in favor of this program more for the community building aspects than the get-poor-kids-into-college side–although with some work, that might be achieved as well.

    What better way to get middle class families to locate in the city (or not leave the city) than by taking away the uncertainties of college funding? Bribe them and they will come. Not only will there be more middle class people in the city, they’ll even have a little more disposable cash to toss around. The schools will have more parents who participate in PTO’s, and there will be more advocates for innovative programs and increased school funding.

    As for more poor kids getting into college, that’s going to take more work–work that will be made more possible with increased funding and more public support for the schools. It has been shown that one factor in turning unsuccessful students around is placing them in an atmosphere where success is expected from them.

    Everything flows from increasing the number of middle class people back in the city. Programs for poor people are inevitably poor programs. Build a wide constituency for a program and it will flourish. Think the difference between Social Security and TANF (AFDC, welfare).

  2. Ellen

    Well, I asked my mom about this plan and would she have gone for it if there was no Plan A. To my surprise she seemed thoughtful about it (as in “hmmm, maybe…it depends on which neighborhood…”) although she also started talking about how much it meant to her to not have to live in the city any more.

    But you’re right: this is a real-world incentive (certainly so if it made even my mom go “Hmmmm.”) But an incentive probably for a certain kind of suburbanite, not all – and I note my mom did live in the city once, so she has some psychological roots there. I don’t know how many suburbanites still have that close of a connection.

    The catch-22 of course is that this incentive will appeal to middle-class families the more the economy starts to suck. But the more the economy starts to suck, the harder it will be to pay for.

  3. sean


    forget about my job as a journalist. i’ve lived in the city long enough to make a couple of simple observations on quiet things that can change a child’s life. and the idea of a middle-class influx affecting only middle-class families and priorities simply isn’t the case.

    i’ve seen children from fragmented, difficult backgrounds quietly become part of a larger group of children from more ‘traditional’ homes … and seen the way the group, and by extension the caring parents of other children, can become a means of support, and motivation, for the child who is struggling. every child wants stability, and refuge, and relief … despair sets in when that is not found in any corner of a young life, and the kids know it probably will never get much better. the more families around that give a damn, the better. i’ve seen the evidence.

    that is not, of course, some pie-in-the-sky cure-all. it is one step, one tiny step, out of many. and this tuition plan – or some form of it – would also go a long ways toward changing an image of exodus that seems, for now, too hopelessly ingrained to change. the fact is, some of the conditions you cite in your note are perceptions that often are not the case … my wife teaches in the city schools. my children all attend them. the experience, i agree, is not the same as attending schools beyond the city … but the difference is often the value. it can be profoundly moving, and profoundly rewarding, and profoundly educational. students from the city go to ivy, and they go to suny, and to everything else – and then there is the education for which you can’t give value. the experience, if you want it, can be tremndous good right now. indeed, many of my friends who’ve left the city left not because of what is but because of what they feared down the road. ‘down the road’ is not yet here, but it may take powerful elements – such as an inspiring tuition plan – to permanently change the dynamic.

    the truth is, the goals you mention are laudable – the city schools as crucible of a sweeping, life-changing education. but the playing field is stacked. the city, faced with some of the most difficult challenges in our culture – in our history, really – also has a depleted tax base. since the borders aren’t changing, how do you rev up that tax base to better finance a system with so much riding on its results for the kids in the most need? you do it by bolstering your middle class. and how do you do that in light of the trends and perceptions that have dominated post-war america?

    you do it with dramatic, paradigm-changing measures – like free or drastically reduced tution to a place like SU. if the involvement of the SUNY schools continues to cause a firestorm over who’s-paying-for-this, i would hope the SU element, based on grant and inhouse help, could curb some of that fury.

    one of the simplest truths i’ve heard in recent weeks is when dr. julius richmond, co-founder of the national head start program in syracuse (and why isn’t that deserving of a statue?) said literacy alone cannot transform a child’s life. you have to go after everything, richmond said – emotional, nutritional, physical, structural. that is a campaign that would demand a vast change in national perceptions – why do, we after all, celebrate a day for mlk? – but it is a losing game in distressed, underfunded, areas that have been emotionally abandoned. the tuition plan is one element of change, but to me it is one hell of an element. get it in place, in full or some lesser form, and then on to what’s next.


  4. Laurie

    Whenever I go to a family event, my siblings and their husbands ask me, “When are you getting out of the city?” Or, “Why do you want to send your kids to a city school – you should come out here.” As you can figure out, they all made the mad exodus out to the suburbs as their children became school age. I tried to tell them that the city schools have gone to be neighborhood schools. As for the one sister that sent her child to a Catholic school instead of the city school that was feet from her house – I said that she should at least check it out.

    Well, this past Sunday, at another family event, they were all up in arms that my children will have this opportunity and they don’t. They just kept saying, “It’s not fair!” I just replied, “Well move back.” One sister just might do it.

    I like this incentive not only for encouraging people to move back to the city, but also for the many that live in a very expensive area of our city that insist on sending their children to catholic or private schools. Many move in the area and talk to their neighbors, then send their child to a catholic school. They never even look into their neighborhood school, which if they all attended would be filled to capacity with just their children from their neighborhood. Let me make it clear – catholic and private schools have a lot to offer – but so does the school in your Syracuse city neighborhood. All teachers are certified, (not always true for catholic schools), their are support services if your child needs them – and almost every teacher will offer your child enrichment if you ask, especially if the school cannot.

    So I say thank you Governor Spitzer! Now maybe the bombardment at family dinner will end!

  5. Ellen

    Sean: Although the proposal connects to my own personal experience with college very closely as I wrote above, I haven’t got children in any local school systems, so I can only reflect on it from a perhaps more remote point of view of strategy and politics (that’s usually the first thing I focus on anyway), but I do think it’s a very promising idea.

    Not only that, but I think that as a spark for meaty community discussion, this concept has more “legs” than the I-81 question — which seemed to produce a raft of discussion among people who nevertheless already have their minds made up.

    THIS is a topic, on the other hand, that makes people think harder and reveal more personal positions (such as, the way Laurie chimed in here). In a way, the proposal is already “paying for itself.”

    Three topics you have blogged recently about — this proposal, I-81, and the Western Lights DMV — seem to me to be related. While I-81 is about reclaiming territory within the city of Syracuse, the other two issues are about the city (or state) staking claims on immediately surrounding areas of opportunity in the burbs, in a manner that blurs the boundaries and actually seems clearly profitable for all. Personally I feel this second approach has a lot of promise, if it’s done consciously.

    Anyhow – your future column on Spitzer’s idea is much anticipated.

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