Tuition-Free College Is Nothing More Than a Political Ploy
New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo rolled out a plan last week to give free tuition to middle-class students attending the state’s public colleges. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were quick to praise Mr. Cuomo’s political ploy, whose true target isn’t New Yorkers but Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The governor presents himself as a champion of the middle class, but it has been fleeing the state in droves due to the lack of jobs and high cost of living. More than 191,000 New Yorkers decamped last year for other states, 43,000 of them to Florida alone. About three-quarters of the state’s counties have lost population since 2010, when Mr. Cuomo was elected. The New York City area continues to grow thanks largely to an influx of foreign immigrants.
Alas, the plan for tuition-free college merely redistributes income while giving the middle class little actual help. In fact, many of the scheme’s putative beneficiaries may be harmed.
There are also claw-back provisions. At the end of each year, scholarship recipients who don’t complete 30 credits—a full course load for two semesters—could lose their grant award for that second semester and get stuck taking out loans to pay back the state.
Students also have to commit to living and working in New York after they graduate for as many years as they receive the scholarship. If they leave the state, the grant turns into a loan. This kind of indentured servitude could keep young graduates from pursuing higher-paying employment elsewhere.
Scholarship recipients also won’t save as much money as they might think. Annual tuition for in-state students at SUNY community colleges is roughly $4,370. The figure for the state’s public four-year schools is about $6,470. Low-income students can get federal Pell grants of up to $5,920 a year. New York’s Tuition Assistance Program, which covers students whose families earn less than $80,000, can further reduce tuition by $500 to $5,000 each year.
In other words, many middle-class students already are paying little to nothing for tuition. Students who receive Gov. Cuomo’s scholarships, however, would still have to pay for room and board, which SUNY estimates will run between $10,000 and $13,000 a year.
Mr. Cuomo says the plan will cost state taxpayers a mere $163 million by 2019. Yet hundreds of millions more in federal student aid may flow to public colleges because of increased enrollment, which may be one of the governor’s unstated goals. Since 2010, enrollment at SUNY community colleges has fallen on average by about 12%. Between 2011 and 2015, enrollment dropped by 8% at SUNY Buffalo State and 18% at Erie Community College.
Promising free tuition could steer more students to public schools from private ones. The Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York estimates Gov. Cuomo’s plan would boost enrollment at public colleges by 116,000 while reducing the head count at nonprofit schools by 11%. The declines would be particularly acute at small, less selective colleges. For-profit schools would be pinched, too.
According to the commission’s analysis, the plan would shift $1.4 billion away from nonprofit colleges, resulting in 45,000 job losses. Compensating jobs would be created at public schools, but dislocations would invariably occur. “Once this is out there and implemented, possibly some of the more precarious institutions will go under,” Gary Olson, president of Daemen College, told Inside Higher Ed. “And what that will do is cause millions of dollars of lost economic impact on the local community where the college is located.”
Thus, the plan could cause thousands of job losses in the upstate areas Mr. Cuomo has spent $25 billion—by his own estimate—trying to resuscitate. Yet his economic stimulus has so far produced little bang for taxpayers’ bucks.
According to a March report by InvestigativePost.org, upstate employment has grown by only 2.7% during the governor’s tenure, compared with 13.1% downstate and 11% nationally. Meanwhile, several of Mr. Cuomo’s cronies were charged last year in a pay-to-play scheme involving projects funded by his Buffalo Billion initiative—a plan to put $1 billion into the Rust Belt city.
“Why a billion? A billion to say to people this isn’t just another plan, and I’m not just another politician with another plan,” the governor explained in January during a visit to Buffalo. “We need something to really capture people’s attention because they have to believe it’s going to work if it’s actually going to work.”
Lawmakers this month approved an additional $400 million in subsidies for Buffalo. Add in the cost of free college, and this could wind up the most expensive publicly financed presidential campaign in history.
Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Journal.
Appeared in the Apr. 20, 2017, print edition.