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Worries Mount That Cuomo's Free Tuition Program Could Hurt Private Colleges, Raise Property Taxes

PLEASANTVILLE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) -- Some private colleges have cried foul over a free tuition plan being considered in Albany.

As CBS2's Lou Young reported, the plan would offer free tuition to low income and middle income New Yorkers in their freshman and sophomore years.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the free tuition plan for New York state colleges and universities back in January, with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) at his side.

Called Excelsior, the plan allows for two years of classes for anyone with a family income of less than $125,000.

Private schools in the state are now worried that it could become too popular if enacted, and it could damage some of their institutions.

The Rev. Joseph McShane is president of Fordham University.

"We really are asking the governor and the legislators to proceed with great caution; with great care; with an understanding of all the consequences," McShane said.

Robert Gilmore handles admissions at Manhattanville College.

"I just need to know more details about what the program is before I really make any decisions on supporting it or not supporting it," he said.

When asked if he was afraid of a stampede out, Gilmore said, "I really kind of am."

If it happened, the free tuition stampede would be a stampede toward state schools. For community colleges, that could mean explosive growth, but also more expenses.

Community colleges are paid for, in part, by the counties they sit in, and counties get their money from property taxes.

"We already pay the highest property taxes in the state of New York," said Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. "So adding so-called free tuition is just another tax that would make matters actually worse on our already struggling middle class."

Astorino noted that not everybody has kids heading to college, but everybody does have to pay taxes. He is expected to challenge Cuomo again for the governor's office, and he would love to strangle the free tuition idea in its cradle.

"I think if the governor's free tuition plan were a term paper, if would get an F -- an epic F," Astorino said.

The private educators are framing their concerns in terms of protecting choice.

"I do think we need to take a breath," said Dr. Joseph Nyre, president of Iona College. "I do think we need to hit the pause button and think hard about, how do we support choice?"

The governor's office estimates the Excelsior program would bring new students into higher education, and that fewer than 2 percent would be transfers from private institutions.

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