One of the cornerstones of the campaign for president of self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders was that public colleges and universities should be tuition “free.” Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton also made tuition-free higher education part of her campaign. Notwithstanding the fact that both Sanders and Clinton were unsuccessful in their bids for the presidency, Governor Cuomo, this year, is following their lead by making “free” college a part of his 2017-18 budget proposal.
At first glance, “free” college sounds very attractive. Why not? The cost of higher education continues to increase at a rate far outpacing inflation and many graduates end up being saddled with huge student loan debt. The thought is, by simply passing legislation making college “free,” these serious issues will be resolved.
The problem with Sanders’, Clinton’s and Cuomo’s proposals is what is meant by “free.” Unless college administrators and professors are willing to work for no pay and the expense of maintaining the classrooms, athletic facilities, student dormitories and other buildings that make up a college campus disappears, money for “free” college must come from somewhere. That somewhere, of course, is you the taxpayer.
Governor Cuomo claims that his “free” college proposal, when fully phased in, will cost New Yorkers approximately $163 million a year. In a state budget that exceeds $150 billion, an additional $163 million may not seem like too much. What the $163 million number does not reveal however is how much New York already spends on higher education. For example, the state spends approximately $1 billion a year on our Tuition Assistance Program (“TAP”) and last year spent $4 billion in direct aid to SUNY and CUNY. If you add in community college aid, aid for capital projects and various scholarship programs, the state last year alone spent $6.5 billion on higher education. While I support much of the state spending on higher education, it is disingenuous to say free college will only cost the state $163 million. Rather, if you accept the governor’s numbers, it will cost the state an additional $163 million on top of what we already spend on higher education.
Moreover, even if we are willing to accept these additional costs, there are a number of other issues with the governor’s proposal. For instance, the impact it will have on private colleges and universities. Unlike TAP awards that can be used for tuition at private colleges, the governor’s “free” tuition proposal only applies to tuition at SUNY and CUNY. Presumably, given the choice of having to pay tuition at private colleges versus getting free tuition at SUNY, a student will choose to go to SUNY. This could depress enrollment at NY’s 147 private colleges and universities, forcing them to raise tuition further on those who still chose to attend one of those schools.
In addition, while there are some New York residency requirements to be eligible for the “free” tuition, they are lax. Under the governor’s proposal, a student is eligible if he or she has been a resident of New York for only one year. Arguably, a student could move to New York, establish residency for one year, attend a SUNY school without paying tuition and then leave immediately upon graduating. Moreover, there is no requirement that the student be a U.S. citizen. If the governor’s proposal is enacted, undocumented immigrants who are New York residents will also be eligible.
All Americans should be concerned with the increasing cost of higher education. That being said, having government take over these costs will not solve this problem nor does not make college “free.” As the NYS budget process progresses, I look forward to making my concerns regarding Governor Cuomo’s “free” college proposal known. If you have any questions or comments regarding this or any other state issue, please contact me. My office can be reached by mail at 200 N. Second St., Fulton, New York 13069, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling 598-5185. You can also friend me, Assemblyman Barclay, on Facebook.