Conservative Column

Pucciarelli: Why New York’s free college tuition bill doesn’t make the grade

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New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo channeled Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) by creating a free college tuition program in the state.

Editor’s note: This Conservative column is one take on New York state’s new free college tuition program. Read the Liberal column about the program here.

New York state’s recent attempt to tackle rising college tuition may seem reasonable at first, but the bill has a considerable number of flaws that will ultimately harm the state.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill earlier this month and created a scholarship program that makes state public universities tuition-free for families making up to $125,000 annually. Nearly 80 percent of families with college-aged children would be qualified for the Excelsior Scholarship, according to the state website. This means more than 940,000 families would be eligible for free-tuition.

Supporters of this bill make a simple argument: College education is a building block to success in the modern world, so the government should help alleviate the burden of high tuition costs to equal the playing field for less fortunate individuals.

They make it seem like this program has no downside, that it’s just free college tuition for families that cannot sustain the burden of paying modern tuition costs. But Cuomo refuses to address the bill’s unintended consequences, which could cause a greater harm to qualified students as well as the entirety of New York state.

For one, free college tuition will significantly increase the number of applications to public universities. Admission processes will become much more competitive, so disadvantaged students qualified for the scholarship might not even get into the college of their choice.

Secondly, this scholarship doesn’t account for the other burdensome costs like room and board, textbooks and travel. The annual in-state tuition at the State University of New York at Geneseo is $6,470. But factoring in other necessary college expenses brings the cost of attendance up to $20,440. These additional expenses — not covered by the Excelsior Scholarship — challenge the scholarship’s legitimacy to truly help those burdened by the cost of higher education.

A much larger problem exists with the requirement for students to attend school full-time and graduate in four years.

But there’s a much bigger problem lurking in this bill in its requirement for students to attend school full-time and graduate in four years. In 2008, SUNY schools only had an average graduation rate of 48.9 percent, according to the SUNY website. If Excelsior Scholarship students cannot go to school full-time and graduate in four years, they must pay back the loaned tuition costs.

“This program doesn’t show a real understanding of the obstacles of students going through a college program,” said Jerry Miner, an economics professor at Syracuse University.

Eligible students first must apply for all other state-granted financial aid, Miner said. Students who don’t qualify for income-based grants will then receive the scholarship. This includes students who might not necessarily need financial support. Students with families making closest to $125,000 annually — more than double New York’s median household income — will stand to benefit the most from this program, according to the Department of Numbers.

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If there aren’t enough concerns already, these students are also required to stay in New York state for four years after graduation. This means graduates would have to turn down all job opportunities out of state and hope to find something in New York despite the current scarcity of jobs. The fragile beginnings of a graduate’s professional career would be decided by the state’s economic standing at the time of their graduation. And if they leave the state they are required to pay back the loaned tuition costs.

Paying back loaned tuition can create even more problems. If students are unable to pay the state back for their tuition, there is no sure way to get the money back. The student’s credit would be destroyed but there is nothing the state can tax to guarantee repayment.

Also, the amount of manpower that will be required to keep track of all the possible violations of the scholarship should be concerning for all New York state taxpayers. Not only will they fund free college tuition, but they would also have to pay the salaries of a management staff in charge of keeping track of students.

All of this should especially concern New York taxpayers. Miner said it is unreasonable for the public to fund an individual’s college education. Since college only benefits the student, taxpayers should not be burdened with funding a service that has no direct benefit for the public.

Overall, Cuomo rushed this program without thinking of its detrimental consequences. He was clearly channeling Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (D-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign rhetoric by trying to grab “free college” headlines to improve his standing with the middle class. Miner suggested this program could help bolster Cuomo’s resume if he ever considered running for president.

But a program as impactful as the Excelsior Scholarship should not be a mark off Cuomo’s political checklist. Although higher education should be attainable for every child in the United States, this is not the right program to make it happen. Cuomo’s idea may be innovative, but innovation should never be prioritized over the well-being of the public.

Joseph Pucciarelli is a sophomore newspaper and online journalism and history dual major. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at jjpuccia@syr.edu and followed on Twitter @JoeyPucciarelli.

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