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The Flaws of New York’s Free-College Plan

Lots of applause greeted Governor Andrew Cuomo’s January 3rd announcement, with Senator Bernie Sanders at his side, that New York’s City and State Universities would be “free” for all New Yorkers from families earning $125,000 a year or less.

The Excelsior program, as it is known, billed as the first in the nation, has been widely accepted as a long overdue measure to allow New York’s deserving middle- and lower-income high-school graduates to attend college, and as an antidote to the alarming rise of student debt. But there are problems in the program’s fine print and even the prospect of some undesirable consequences.

Related: Federal Aid Drives up College Costs

At its unveiling, Governor Cuomo said the Excelsior program would enable more than 940,000 New Yorkers to attend college tuition-free.  That figure was determined by simply calculating the number of college-age children among the 80 percent of New York households earning $125,000 or less (not all of whom will necessarily go to college or attend public institutions in the state).

But if all of those eligible students did take advantage of the offer, at current CUNY/SUNY tuition levels of about $7,000 per year, Excelsior scholarships could cost the state as much as $6.5 billion annually.  Yet, clarifying details offered subsequently pegged the number of students that would initially be impacted by the program as a mere 83,000, and the cost to the state just a mere $163 million. Even these curtailed estimates don’t add up; annual tuition for 83,000 CUNY/SUNY students amounts to $581 million.

The explanation for these wildly inconsistent figures is that the Excelsior program is not really a generous universal college-scholarship program for all but the richest New Yorkers, but a modest “topping-off” of already existing state and federal financial-aid programs.  New York’s longstanding Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) already disburses up to $1.1 billion to over 300,000 students.  And federal Pell Grant and other direct aid programs (i.e. excluding student loans) send millions of dollars more to eligible NewYork collegians.

Related: We Have Too Many Colleges So Cut College Spending

Notwithstanding its misleading advertising, what’s wrong with a program that makes college more affordable for New Yorkers?  If the goal is to get more low-income New Yorkers to go to one of the state’s public colleges, we have two problems.  First, the Excelsior program (like most other “free college” proposals) won’t cover the full financial burden incurred by the receiving campuses. The full annual operating cost (i.e. excluding the cost of personnel fringe benefits and debt service on facilities) at CUNY (City University of New York) or SUNY (State University of New York) now runs between $12,000 and $18,000 per student. And that is even with their reliance on an army of low-paid “adjunct” faculty and monstrously large classes.  Since the Cuomo administration (like its Republican and Democratic predecessors) has strenuously resisted increasing CUNY/SUNY appropriations in the face of prior enrollment increases, it is highly unlikely that it is prepared to pay for the extra costs imposed by newly enrolled Excelsior students, causing further erosion in the quality of CUNY/SUNY undergraduate instruction.

On top of that, there is a strong likelihood that many New York high-school graduates attracted to CUNY and SUNY by Excelsior scholarships will be unprepared for college.  We have been there before.  Between 1969 and 1975, the City University, driven by the same ideological rationale offered for the Excelsior program, was both free and had “open admissions” (i.e. no barrier to admission based on high-school grades or standardized test scores).  The results were catastrophic: the CUNY colleges experienced an influx of students needing “remediation” (which didn’t really work), overcrowded classes, a demoralized faculty and plunging graduation rates.  Thus, if the Excelsior program aims to expand enrollment of low-income students beyond current levels, there is a strong likelihood that this experience will be repeated.

The governor and other Excelsior advocates might argue that free college needn’t mean open admissions.  But in that case there is very little evidence that the Excelsior program is needed.  The current New York State TAP program, supplemented by federal Pell grants, already underwrites the entire tuition of all truly poor students.  If, on the other hand, the main impact of Excelsior scholarships is to divert affluent, college-ready students away from private in-state colleges or out-of-state-institutions, it creates an unnecessary entitlement for the non-needy.

In the cold light of day, if the Excelsior program isn’t merely an exercise in liberal symbolism, it is either a colossal waste of money or an initiative that will seriously erode the quality of the state’s public universities – now that they have, after decades of difficulty, become much stronger institutions.  Since CUNY’s open admissions policy was ended in 2000, the academic quality of its campuses has improved dramatically and, despite increased tuition (necessitated by the state’s budgetary stinginess), their enrollment of qualified students has increased, along with their graduation rates.

SUNY, too, during this period, has grown in enrollment and quality.  If New York State has more money to devote to higher education, the most beneficial way of spending it would be to give it to CUNY and SUNY to improve undergraduate instruction at their woefully underfunded campuses.