It’s the idea that just won’t go away: free college tuition. Yesterday Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York proposed providing free tuition for low and middle income students at state colleges and universities .
Officials in New York put the first year cost of the proposal at $163 million. Up to 1 million New York families would be eligible for the program. And increased participation will certainly drive up the costs.
The plan must still pass a divided legislature where it is likely to considerable scrutiny.
It looks like Cuomo is positioning New York in the forefront of a movement on the left to improve college access by reducing college costs. Cuomo’s plan comes on the heels of a Democratic Presidential campaign that mentioned similar proposals. Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton talked openly on the campaign trail of her “debt-free” college plan. It followed a more ambitious free college plan offered by her opponent, fellow Democrat Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. You could say President Barack Obama started much of this discussion early last year when he proposed a plan to make two years of community college free for eligible students.
(North Carolina is not immune from such thinking. Last year the Republican-led state legislature included provisions in the state budget to reduce tuition to $500 a semester at three UNC institutions and to also to limit fee increases Here I explain why this is not a good idea.)
Progressives continue to tout Free or Debt-Free College as the way to increase economic opportunity and improve America’s workforce.
It’s the right problem, but the wrong solution. Why?
Other problems besides cost. Inherent in such proposals is the belief that our biggest workforce problem is getting people into school and affordability. A 55 percent four-year college graduation rate demonstrates that we have more problems that tuition pricing. Such thinking also ignores the low quality of many colleges and the lower quality of college students as indicated by the high number of students taking remedial classes. Reducing the price of college does nothing to reverse these troubling trends.
Free College is not free. Cuomo’s NY plan may lift the burden of costs from students and their families. They don’t however eliminate costs. Students will still need to pay the cost of room and board and fees (which can be substantial). In addition, the plan does nothing to stem the ever-increasing cost of providing an education on the part of the institution. Costs will still be incurred, likely continue to increase and still need to be paid
Is College for everyone?. Such proposals also assume since college is the best educational option for everyone, resources should be distributed equally across all students. The diversity of our students shows this to be simply not true. Thinking all students should go to college is just the type of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place.
Many factors account for growing concern about the quality of America’s work force. The rising cost of college is only part of the problem.
The truth is, free-college and debt-free college proposals ignore these realities and come with costs that make such plans too expensive to consider.