| New York Governor's Office

Democratic Governors Propose "Free" College

Donald Trump's election is not dampening liberal dreams, as the Democratic governors in New York and Rhode Island are rolling out proposals for "free" college tuition.

The plans recently announced by Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo echoed the political playbooks of fellow Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and do not seem aligned with the Trump administration's priorities.

The new plans aim to counter the problem of growing student debt and the need for a more educated workforce, both Cuomo and Raimondo said.

“New York’s tuition-free college degree program … will help alleviate the crushing burden of student debt while enabling thousands of bright young students to realize their dream of higher education,” Cuomo said when he unveiled the program.

About 44 million Americans owe nearly $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, according to government statistics.

And there's no question that the cost of higher education has been growing steadily in recent decades. Since 1995, the average in-state tuition in the United States has shot up nearly 300 percent, according to a report from the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative, a research center at the University of Pennsylvania.

And the largest higher-ed cost driver has been declining state financing of state universities, a 2015 Penn Wharton report says. The tuition price hikes have often put the cost of college out of reach for low-income families and people of color, the policy institute reports. This then leads to lower wage growth and a more stagnant tax base.

The governors’ proposals, which still need to be approved by their respective legislatures, stand at odds with comments by President Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Education. Betsy DeVos refused to endorse Sanders’ free-tuition concept during her confirmation hearings.

“There’s nothing in life that’s truly free – somebody’s going to pay for it,” she said.

Critics see free-tuition plans as Pollyannaish and expensive, as well as the wrong solution to the complex problems surrounding higher education.

“The assumption behind their argument is that the price of tuition is the only obstacle to student access,” Bob Luebke, a policy analyst with the Civitas Institute in North Carolina, told AMI Newswire. That assumption is false, he said.

The free-tuition concept ignores deeper problems with community college programs, such as an average 30 percent completion rate for students earning a two-year degree, academic quality concerns and overall student readiness questions, Luebke said.

A more philosophical problem with the state proposals is that trying to make the cost of going to a public university free can devalue a college degree, causing students to take their studies less seriously, he said.

“People need to have skin invested in the game,” Luebke said.

In addition, private nonprofit universities and colleges would suffer if they’re not included in the program, he said. Luebke predicted that there may be a migration from private universities to the public universities. The free tuition plans proposed in the two states only include public schools.

In New York, private schools are a key part of the state economy. Such private, independent colleges and universities are critical economic engines in their respective communities, providing $5.1 billion in financial aid in 2014-15, according to Mary Beth Labate, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities.

"We are closely reviewing the details of the proposal and continue to believe that preserving the ability for New York families to choose an educational environment that is right for them best serves the interest and future of New York,” Labate said in a statement to AMI.

Although she applauded Cuomo for making higher education a high priority this year, Labate asked that the proposal be expanded beyond the City University of New York and State University of New York systems.

“We look forward to seeing all of New York’s low- and middle-income students included by allowing additional aid to be used at the state’s broad complement of private, not-for-profit higher education institutions,” Labate said.

Cuomo’s plan would cover an estimated 940,000 families and individuals who make up to $125,000 in taxable income. The Rhode Island program would give qualified high school graduates two years of free tuition at public community colleges or universities. It would fund either the cost of earning a two-year associate’s degree at the Community College of Rhode Island or the cost to cover tuition and fees during students’ junior and senior years at Rhode Island College or the University of Rhode Island.

Cuomo estimates that his program would cost $163 million annually when fully implemented, and the Rhode Island plan would come in at $30 million per year. Critics, however, say the numbers are low and that such programs could balloon in the future.

Some critics question the decision to add expensive new programs. In 2016 the Mercatus Center at George Mason University ranked New York (42nd) and Rhode Island (37th) as among the states with the worst fiscal conditions.

The state proposals differ in one important respect from the Sanders and Clinton plans, according to Matthew Chingos of the Urban Institute. The latter proposals called for eliminating tuition while letting students keep their current level of federal and state aid, but the New York and Rhode Island plans are classified as “last dollar,” meaning that they will pay only the gap between the tuition cost and the student’s existing aid, Chingos said in a blog post.

Because low-income residents already receive federal and state grant aid that covers tuition costs in New York, the Cuomo program will help only upper-middle-income families, many of whom could get by without the additional funds, he said.

Other observers question the need for such programs. Even in the wake of 30 percent tuition hikes from 2010 to 2015, the public colleges and universities in New York remain a bargain compared to most public campuses in other states, according to E.J. McMahon, research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy in New York.

The idea that $163 million is all that’s needed to cover the tuition gap for hundreds of thousands of New York households suggests that the college affordability crisis is really an illusion, McMahon said in a blog post.