Free College: Mom and Apple Pie?

January 9, 2017

New York Governor Cuomo has taken Senator Sanders’ key higher education platform issue – free tuition – and proposed a version for New York residents attending community colleges and CUNY/SUNY institutions with family incomes of $125,000 or less. Who could possibly think this was a bad idea? College prices have increased by 139% over the past 30 years in 2016 dollars while family incomes have increased only 16% during the same period.

There are, however, major issues beyond the estimated $163m annual price tag. SUNY tuition is already significantly subsidized by the State – – $6470 versus an average independent college tuition of approximately $38,000. Low-income students already get “free tuition” with a combination of federal Pell Grants and State TAP awards. There is another $14,000 in fees, room and board that is not addressed by this plan. If the State has $163m extra for higher education, it should first make sure that costs are covered for all low-income students before providing funds for those at higher income levels. While I understand that $21,000 a year at SUNY is a challenge for many families with incomes at the upper range of the Governor’s proposal, it would be significantly more equitable to award need-based grants to those students whose family resources are not sufficient to cover the cost of attendance, rather than giving a $6500 grant to everyone with incomes below a certain level.

In addition, there are over 100 independent not-for-profit colleges and universities in New York. Many of these colleges provide significant need-based financial aid to make college affordable from institutional, state and federal sources. That is becoming an increasingly difficult challenge to meet. Competing against “free” tuition could be the nail in the coffin of some of these institutions, resulting in more students flocking to a “free” SUNY. This will inflate the cost of the program well beyond the initial estimates of $163m.

With a median 2015 New York family income of about $58,000, the Governor’s proposal would impact slightly over 80% of New York State families. From a political perspective, this makes total sense. Pragmatically, however, it is a different story. As some private colleges lose enrollments to SUNY, the actual cost of this program will be significantly higher than current estimates. And inequity is bound to result when a student from a $58,000 income family is treated the same as a student with a $125,000 income; and when low income students are eligible for less grant aid when funds are diverted from need-based aid to help fund the program.

Rather than eating Mom’s apple pie, legislators in New York need to look carefully at the recipe and figure out an equitable formula to make New York State colleges and universities more affordable.

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