Is There Such a Thing as Free College?
New York became the first state to make tuition free for two- and four-year colleges for certain students. Governor Andrew Cuomo first introduced his Excelsior Scholarship plan in January 2017, and signed it into law in April 2017. New York State’s Excelsior Scholarship will provide free tuition to students whose families earn less than $125,000 for all public two- and four-year colleges in New York, covering State University of New York (SUNY) colleges as well as City University of New York (CUNY) colleges. The estimated cost if this Excelsior Scholarship is $163 million, amounting to only 0.1% of New York State’s budget. Governor Cuomo, in announcing his plan, said “In this economy, you need a college education if you’re going to compete.” He explained, “It’s incredibly hard and getting harder to get a college education today. It’s incredibly expensive and debt is so high it’s like starting a race with an anchor tied to your leg.” Based on projections, around 940,000 New York households have college-aged children who would qualify for the program.
“[T]he cost of attending college has risen at a much faster rate than the median income, putting even middle-class families in a tough spot when trying to figure out how to finance their children’s college education.” According to the Institute for College Access and Success, about 59% of students graduate from New York’s four-year colleges with debt, on average about amounting to $29,320 of debt. The program will work by giving a scholarship to students whose existing federal and state need-based loans do not fully cover the $6,470 list price tuition at public institutions. Students who currently pay no tuition out of pocket because they receive enough financial aid, through Pell Grants or New York Tuition Assistance grants, to cover tuition, will not receive any funding from the Excelsior Scholarship. This is problematic, as the Scholarship targets students from middle income families, instead of helping students from lower income families who struggle to pay for living expenses, books, and transportation even though they may not be paying out-of-pocket for tuition. Additionally, in order to be eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship students must enroll in 30 credits per year, therefore excluding part-time students.
Added to New York’s law at the last minute, just before it was signed, was a clause that turns the scholarship into a loan if the student leaves the state within four years of graduating (assuming they received four years worth of funding). This subsidy-turned-loan is problematic for many reasons. It both impedes the ability to work in the national labor market, as well as could incentivize unemployed graduates to stay in New York rather than leave the state to find a job elsewhere. Additionally, the converted subsidy-turned-loan would not have the same benefits as a federal student loan, like the income-based repayment arrangement.
Some of New York State’s public officials were not thrilled with the plan. New York State Assembly Republican Leader Brian Kolb stated “Governor Cuomo isn’t providing ‘free’ tuition, he’s simply telling New York taxpayers to write a bigger check.” Other Republican lawmakers criticized the Governor’s proposal during budget negotiations for excluding students at private colleges. Additionally, while SUNY Chairman Carl McCall and Chancellor Nancy Zimpher “applauded the budget deal” and called it “truly ground-breaking,” they also had “hoped for additional support,” specifically for SUNY community colleges.
With this program, New York joins other states and cities in providing free college. Tennessee, Oregon, and San Francisco have recently made tuition free at community colleges for all residents, regardless of income. Additionally, Rhode Island is now considering a proposal that would make two years at public colleges tuition-free. Unlike the Excelsior Scholarship in New York, the proposal in Rhode Island would allow every Rhode Island resident who graduates high school in-state to be eligible for two-years free tuition at the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, and the Community College of Rhode Island, regardless of income. Interestingly, the Rhode Island proposal makes it so the scholarship could only be used for a students’ junior and senior years at four-year colleges. Projections from the Rhode Island Governor’s office expect that the program would benefit 8,000 students and cost $30 million a year, less than 0.5% of the state’s budget. The proposed plan, a “last dollar” scholarship, would “cover the gap a student has on their tuition bill after using up any federal or state grants he or she already receives.”
Additionally, college tuition has been a topic on the federal level. President Trump has proposed cutting $5 billion in higher-education for lower-income Americans. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, along with Representative Keith Ellison and other members of Congress, introduced the College for All Act, with the hope to eliminate tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities for students whose families make under $125,000 per year. The bill proposes that the federal government would pay 67% of tuition subsidies at public colleges and universities, and state and tribal governments would pay the other third. While the bill likely will not pass with a Republican Congress and Trump in the White House, it has been backed by the United States Students Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association.
While these college tuition subsidies could be extremely beneficial in allowing more students to attend college who previously could not afford it, there are many controversial issues in the scholarship plans. Who ends up paying for the scholarship? Does college truly prepare graduates for the workforce? And lastly, with all the strings-attached to New York State’s Excelsior Scholarship, can it be said that there is such a thing as free college?