By Nancy Duchesneau
In his State of the State address, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a proposal to offer free college tuition in the state and city university system to students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year – roughly the 80th percentile of family income. Last year, Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton came to a compromise with a nearly identical plan making it into the Democratic platform.
Governor Cuomo’s plan, named the Excelsior Scholarship, would cost New York residents an estimated $163 million annually and allow students from slightly less than a million families to attend college for free beginning in 2019. Students eligible for federal Pell Grants would first use these funds to pay for school, with the state picking up the remaining tab. However, the plan must first pass the state’s legislature and there is no guarantee lawmakers will keep the plan as is or even approve it at all given the uncertainty of what the program’s results will be.
Is “free college” really free?
Ultimately, college tuition is never free. It can either be paid by individuals attending college or by public tax dollars. Conservatives often argue that individuals should hold the burden of paying since a college degree directly benefits the college-goer. Additionally, some scholars argue that federal student aid allows colleges to raise their prices indefinitely. Liberals often argue that the public should hold the burden of paying for a college education. There are a number of financial aid policies that have been implemented with varying results.
Who really benefits?
As is typically true of education policies, the expected results of implementing Governor Cuomo’s plan are not necessarily clear-cut. The ostensible beneficiaries are financially struggling students who could not afford to attend college otherwise, but families that are relatively well off are likely to benefit more. Because federal money would first be used to pay for as much of the tuition as possible, it’s likely that families who don’t qualify for Pell Grants (i.e. don’t have a low enough income) would benefit the most from the Excelsior Scholarship because it would pay for most, if not all, of the tuition for those students.
The question of whether the uneven benefits are a problem depends on what you value. Is the goal to increase college attendance rates overall, regardless of the potential to increase the gap in college attendance between Blacks and Whites and between low- and high-income families, as was found in a study of Georgia’s HOPE scholarship? Or is the goal to close college attendance gaps between these groups?
Free public college isn’t a magic bullet
While the proposal to offer free public college tuition up to the 80th income percentile could be a step in the direction of increasing college attendance, it is not a magic bullet that will lead to equitable education outcomes between minorities and Whites or between low- and high-income students. It does not affect who is accepted to universities or who is adequately prepared for higher education. If equity is the goal, we will need to supplement this plan with PK-12 policies that better prepare marginalized students to seek out and succeed in higher education.
Contact Nancy: Duchesn4@msu.edu