Last Friday, New York legislators agreed on a budget that includes funding for tuition-free education at public colleges and universities. That plan, the Excelsior Scholarship, maintains most of the features of a proposal Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced earlier this year, including tuition-free enrollment at the City University of New York and State University of New York systems to students of families earning up to $125,000 per year. In some ways, the announcement is a return to a past lineage.
While the plan has its limitations, New York’s budget deal represents a milestone in the push for universal higher education, which we should welcome whether we’re students, alumni, or autodidacts. While states as diverse as Tennessee and Oregon have expanded access to community colleges, New York’s approach goes a step further by ensuring low- and middle-income residents may access both two- and four-year degrees at the state’s prodigious public universities.
Whether you care about reducing student-loan debt, increasing the adoption of open educational resources, or promoting social mobility, there’s much to celebrate in the announcement.
Student Loan Debt: A National Story
You’ve probably already heard about the student debt crisis. The very scale of the crisis— $1.3 trillion and counting—occludes a distressing reality: tens of millions of Americans are already saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. Low-income communities shoulder some of the highest debt levels, according to The Education Trust—New York. That means the very students who face the most significant structural impediments also suffer most significantly under the status quo.
As I have discussed previously, tuition increases don’t tell the whole story. Public two- and four-year schools have expanded educational access, improved educational attainment, and constrained tuition increases to inflationary levels. Unfortunately, students must absorb the rising costs of student services.
Student-Loan Debt: A New York Story
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimates that New Yorkers collectively owe $82 billion in student-loan debt. While that figure may not seem as daunting as the nation’s, it contains a troubling data point: debt load has more than doubled over the past decade.
This isn’t for lack of trying. New York offers in-state students some of the lowest tuition rates in the nation. In fact, if you live in Omaha, you’re likely to spend more on tuition at a public university than you would if you live in Brooklyn, the borough that brought us the $18 coffee. In-state full-time tuition starts at just $4,370 per year at a state college (SUNY), or about $4,800 at a city school (CUNY). The state also offers the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), which defrays tuition costs for families making as much as $80,000 per year.
The problem is that tuition is only part of student debt. Consider CUNY; an in-state student might pay just $4,800 per year to pursue her associate’s degree. After that, she’ll spend another $9,592 per year on books, food, transportation, personal expenses, and room and board. And that’s assuming she lives at home. If she doesn’t, she can expect to spend an additional $10,000 on housing. CUNY’s estimates are conservative, if anything, given the cost of living in the city. Until we collectively recognize that students don’t study in a vacuum, we cannot create effective higher-education policy.
New York’s tuition-free higher education plan is an important first step, but it’s only a first step. The Excelsior Scholarship will phase in over the next three years. This fall, students of families earning up to $100,000 will be eligible, a number that will rise to $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 in 2019. Given that the average New Yorker earns about $58,000, most children in dual-income families will be eligible for free tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools by the time the program is fully implemented in 2019.
Governor Cuomo’s office estimates that about 940,000 families will qualify for tuition-free university in 2019. SUNY estimates that more than three-quarters of New Yorkers with college-age students will qualify. Meanwhile, Jim Malatras, the director of state operations, estimates that closer to 200,000 students will receive tuition-free education, per the New York Times.
One important variable is the requirement that students enroll in full-time study. While research suggests that full-time study improves completion rates, the program’s full-time mandate may limit the participation of non-traditional students who rely upon part-time programs while they maintain full-time employment.
The Virtues of the Excelsior Scholarship
New York isn’t the first state to promote tuition-free higher education. In 2014, the Tennessee legislature passed a law that provided students with tuition-free access to community and technical colleges. Tennessee Promise later served as a blueprint for the Obama administration’s free community college proposal. Oregon has also pursued a tuition-free community college plan called Oregon Promise that has attracted so many students that legislators have expanded the program.
In providing tuition-free enrollment at both two- and four-year schools, New York includes both community and public universities in its vision for universal higher education.
The single most valuable feature of the Excelsior Scholarship is that it invests in the institutions that work well. The CUNY system was recently ranked one of the nation’s best vehicles for social mobility. SUNY, particularly the Stony Brook campus, ranked even higher, second only to Cal State. Meanwhile, both CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) and SUNY Buffalo’s Finish in 4 initiative are reducing time to degree, and with it student expenses.
New York students shouldn’t expect to go to Columbia University on the state’s dime. I’m comfortable with the bill’s focus on public colleges and universities, not the least because it will help to contain costs. The plan does, however, include a program through which students may apply for matching grants valued at up to $3,000 towards study at private institutions.
Finally, as an advocate for open educational resources, I’m heartened to see that New York has allocated some funding (though arguably not enough) to promote the adoption and distribution of open-educational-resource textbooks at SUNY and CUNY campuses. Given that textbooks comprise as much as 9 percent of student costs, according to The Education Trust—New York, shifting towards free, peer-reviewed, open-source content will make a material difference in students’ debt burdens.
The Limitations of the Excelsior Scholarship
We mustn’t equate the Excelsior Scholarship with free college. As I indicated before, tuition only constitutes about one-third of the costs of public higher ed. Students will save thousands of dollars on in-state tuition, but they’ll probably still need student loans. Moreover, because the program only covers tuition costs as “last dollar” financial aid, it only applies after a student exhausts other sources of aid. That means that the scholarship does less for low-income New Yorkers, who might apply for federal (Title IV) or state (TAP) assistance, than it does middle- and upper-middle income families.
There’s nothing to stop legislators from building on this first venture to make it more generous and inclusive. To that point, the Excelsior Scholarship could learn from Oregon Promise, which provides a minimum of $1,000 to students whose needs are already met by other sources of aid. I would advocate that New York go still further and provide students with priority access to affordable housing.
While I understand the benefits of full-time enrollment, I hope that future legislators will expand the program to accommodate part-time study so that a greater number of non-traditional students—who, it should be said, are increasingly setting the standard of traditional students—may take advantage of the program.
Some educational experts have questioned the wisdom of a clause that converts scholarships into loans if a student fails to work the number of years for which they received awards. That is, if you complete your bachelor’s degree in four years, the state expects you to work in-state for four years. While I understand that legislators want to realize a return on their investment, this is a solution in search of a problem: more than 80 percent of SUNY and CUNY students remain in state after graduation, according to Inside Higher Education.
Back to Basics
Many unknowns accompany this experiment.The program was initially estimated to cost $163 million, per the New York Times. I suspect it will cost far more in execution. However, in the context of an annual state budget of $153 billion, free tuition at public institutions won’t break the bank.
I do worry that adding tens of thousands of students to existing public colleges and universities will strain institutional resources. Perhaps it will also encourage more institutional research and collaboration.
While Governor Cuomo has trumpeted a “generous maintenance of effort” provision to protect SUNY and CUNY budgets, I hope state legislators and the public writ large will treat this as an opportunity to reconsider reliance upon temporary and adjunct faculty labor. If we aren’t prepared to invest in educators, the commitment to higher education is only window dressing.
However, if I set aside my well-worn skepticism, the Excelsior Scholarship represents an opportunity not just for the state of New York but for the nation to reconsider our philosophy toward higher education. For decades, we’ve vigorously embraced a market-based approach, an approach that has brought us much more impressive but also much more expensive campuses. Returning to the ideal of tuition-free public higher education isn’t some progressive pipe dream. CUNY maintained the policy for a time until 1976. Forty years later, the institution is about to renew its commonwealth legacy. That’s something New York should celebrate, and other states should replicate.