free college: not dead yet
While higher ed has certainly been under attack since the election, Donald Trump hasn’t said too much about his agenda for higher education, and with Betsy DeVos, charter school aficionado, at the helm of the Department of Education, it seems like K-12 issues may be at the forefront of the new administration.
What’s pretty clear, though, is that “free college”, a la Bernie or, more reluctantly, Hillary, is not on that agenda. But free college, it turns out, has not disappeared: New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced a free college proposal of his own, to apply to SUNY and CUNY schools.
Cuomo’s proposal would make SUNY/CUNY tuition-free for families with incomes of up to $125,000. It would require full-time attendance, and be “last-dollar” aid—i.e., the fee waiver would kick in after federal Pell grants, NY state Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grants, and any scholarships were already used up.
New York is not the first state to set forth some kind of “free college” proposal—see Tennessee and Oregon. However, it is the first to take it beyond the community college level. And the mere size of the NYS system—enrolling a million students—makes it impossible to ignore.
So, some caveats. “Free tuition” probably doesn’t cover fees, which at my SUNY, at least, are nearly $3000 a year. And it definitely doesn’t cover living expenses. New York also has low tuition, compared to most states—it is still only $6470 at four-year SUNYs. And it has a decent—though not as generous as California’s—state grant aid program in TAP. If your income is low enough—I’d guess below $50k, though that’s just a ballpark—between Pell and TAP you’re not paying any tuition anyway. As Matthew Chingos accurately points out in the Washington Post, families with incomes between $80,000 and $125,000 will benefit most.
And the fact that living expenses are still, at SUNY/CUNY, larger than tuition costs means that it’s also not going to make that much dent in student loans, which are lower-than-average (about $20k for four-year degrees) for SUNY graduates anyway. Cuomo’s headline about “alleviating crushing burden of student loans” is hyperbole.
So what this is, is a significant, and expensive, expansion of grant aid for the middle-class, and a reframing of what college costs (nothing! I know, I know) that may encourage lower-income students to go to college. And tying the benefit to full-time attendance may encourage more full-time enrollment, which evidence suggests (though there are a lot of selection effects here) facilitates completion.
And, of course, this is just a proposal. It’s not yet legislation, and there are a lot of steps between here and there. Nevertheless, despite its limitations, if this became a reality I think the implications for higher ed would be huge—for the symbolic value of committing to the idea that students should not pay for tuition, if nothing else.
One is the question of whether this would be resource-neutral for SUNY and CUNY. There’s no indication it’s not intended to be, but a lot will depend on the details. For SUNY, at least, funding has only been loosely linked to tuition levels. Sometimes New York State has raised tuition to plug its revenue gaps, without SUNY ever seeing the money.
A second is how it intersects with the push for larger enrollments, which has been a pounding drumbeat over the last three or four years at SUNY (not sure about CUNY). Right now, additional students—even in-state ones—bring marginal benefits, but would that still be the case if many of them weren’t paying tuition? I don’t think the enrollment push has been particularly good for the institution, but it’s also been sold as the path to financial solvency. If free tuition means no benefits to larger enrollments, SUNY will have to find a new strategy for achieving long-term fiscal stability.
This could also affect who gets to enroll. Free tuition might make selective schools more competitive—which is probably good for them as institutions. But it also might encourage an even heavier focus on out-of-state and international students who can bring more revenue. That, in turn, could lead to battles over who gets the seats—New York residents or non-New-Yorkers paying full freight—which have been brutal in California, but largely absent in New York.
Finally, this clearly affects the complex organizational ecosystem of higher ed. It’s bad for private institutions in New York, especially small struggling colleges like Albany’s Saint Rose, which cut two dozen tenure lines last year in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. It’s probably also bad for for-profit colleges—largely because of the symbolic value of making college “free” rather than real changes in relative cost, since for-profit students are disproportionately in the lower-income group that wouldn’t benefit anyway.
But I’d hold that the biggest impact of such a plan would be the symbolic one. Is it ideal that it’s basically a middle-class tax benefit that does nothing material for lower-income families? No. But the institutional details of the New York State system—its relatively low tuition and preexisting state grant aid—make it possible to create “tuition-free college” here for less money than it would cost in many places. Showing that it can be done will make free college more than a pipe dream. SUNY/CUNY is the 500-pound gorilla of public higher ed. Where New York leads, others will follow.