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Why Gov. Cuomo’s ‘Free College’ Plan Will Fail Miserably


Gov. Andrew Cuomo just gave free college to everyone in New York!

Sort of. Not really.

Actually, Cuomo’s new “free college” Excelsior Scholarship doesn’t do what it claims to do, it’s likely to cost the moon, and its unintended consequences may have catastrophic effects on New York’s higher education system. The Excelsior Scholarship may be the most badly conceived education reform of the decade.

Cuomo is trying to address a real problem. The real costs of college have gone up by at least 50 percent in the last 20 years. The return on investment for going to college has remained stable—but only because the wages of Americans without college degrees has cratered. Americans who can afford it pay whatever colleges charge, hoping to avoid falling into the class of deplorable ignorables. Americans who can’t afford college know their chances for a good life are dwindling every year.

It’s no surprise that a lot of people think the solution is just to make college free: to keep the well-off from being semi-bankrupted by college, and to give the poor a chance to get into college in the first place. Bernie Sanders made this a big deal during his presidential campaign, proposing to make college education free for everyone. This year, he’s introduced a bill into the Senate to make public college tuition-free for all students with family income up to $125,000. At the state level, both liberal Oregon and conservative Tennessee have introduced programs to make community college tuition free.

What Cuomo Wants To Achieve With Excelsior

All these plans have their pluses and minuses—the devil is always in the details. But even if we approach Cuomo’s plans with low expectations, his Excelsior Scholarship is still a mess. Excelsior only supplements existing education grants, which already target the poorest Americans, so the program mostly benefits families that are already pretty well off.

Excelsior is also weirdly coercive, because Excelsior beneficiaries have to agree to live and work in New York state several years after graduation. Then, because the Excelsior Scholarship only gives a tuition break to students in New York’s public colleges, it may destroy the finances of private colleges throughout New York, by taking away their potential students and funneling them into the public university system. Cuomo’s plan could end up forcing students to go to public colleges because the private ones have shut down.

Excelsior’s costs could also spiral out of control in a state that is already highly taxed. Cuomo estimates that Excelsior will cost $163 million a year, but New York City’s Independent Budget Office thought that free tuition would cost $138-$232 million just for the city’s community colleges. No one knows just how much Excelsior will end up costing.

Worse still, Excelsior sends more students into colleges that are already overcrowded and underfunded. If there are no other changes—and none are likely—cramming more students into New York’s public universities will just make the crowding and underfunding worse.

College Should Be Made Cheaper, Not Free

The colleges already have woefully low admission standards. At CUNY community colleges, 80 percent of students need to take remedial classes, while 21 percent of students do at SUNY community colleges. Because Excelsior will funnel students into colleges they may not be prepared to enter, Governor Cuomo will likely only increase the number of students taking remedial courses, not the number of students actually receiving a college education.

New York’s public education is also afflicted with the progressive bureaucracies that are the suppurating wounds of higher education—offices of diversity, offices of civic engagement, offices of sustainability, and the like. Excelsior is as likely to “educate” students in progressive creed as it is to provide them a real education.

Colleges should be made cheaper—and there are a large number of intelligent reform proposals aimed at making that possible. We can (among other possibilities) reduce the accreditation bureaucracies; eliminate the “co-curricular” administrators on campus; allow for-profit colleges to enter the education sector on the same terms as not-for-profit colleges; raise admission standards so that colleges don’t need to waste money on remediation; and require colleges to act as co-guarantors of student loans. Any of these measures would make American college education significantly cheaper—and better too.

Only Americans in the other 49 states really benefit from the Excelsior Scholarship. They’ve just gotten a lesson in how not to do education reform, and they don’t even need to pay for it. It’s only New Yorkers who’ll foot the bill for Governor Cuomo’s folly.