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The Problematic Nature of New York’s “Free” Tuition

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As someone headed into academia for a few more years (no, I will not stop tooting my own horn), the announcement coming from New York last week that SUNY/CUNY schools would be adopting free-tuition was big news. Big, big news! Tremendous news. Really great news. Probably some of the best news in the history of news, ever.

Tuition-free college has been a dream of many for a long time. As Inside Higher Ed reports, “CUNY was tuition-free, but that ended in 1976, with New York City facing a fiscal crisis.” Additionally, with the recent election we know how long Bernie Sanders has been on this crusade. In the linked TLG article by Jordan Simon about Bernie’s crusade, you can read about how much traction the idea of tuition-free college has gained among the public and among those congress critters we employ on Capitol Hill. It is a popular idea, and is already implemented in some way or another across many states. But New York’s plan is by far one of the largest yet, by the numbers.

New York’s proposal is as follows: If you are from a household that makes below $125,000 annually, you are eligible for tuition-free college at New York’s public colleges, SUNY and CUNY systems. You must be a full-time student, achieving 30 college credits per year in order to remain eligible. Lastly, you must finish your 2-year or 4-year degree in 2 or 4 years, respectively. After graduating, you must remain in state for the same amount of years as you received state support.

So where do I find problems? Let me get my soapbox.

While this is all now part of the New York state budget, it only covers tuition. Not room and board, not activity fees, not the litany of other areas we are all painfully aware of. While we are aware that full-time student status has a positive effect on success and graduation, the requirements of free-tuition excludes part-time students, who logically are those who need state-assistance the most. Even when I’ve been attending full-time, I’ve had to work part-time to support myself through college. Think of the single mothers, the people just trying to do a bit of a degree at a time, those with physical or mental health issues that prevent them from being full-time students. I can hear you groaning now about my tropes here, but I come from a single-mother household.

Failure should not be viewed as a mark of shame, yet in this current plan you may be surprised with a bill if you fail a course while on the state sponsored “free” tuition. Life happens, people fail. The fact that the state will be holding your financial future over your head only adds to the pressures of college, further adding to any exterior issues like family concerns, health, and just trying to be a functional human being. Many of us already face those pressures, but there is something disturbing about the state being the collector on these debts.

Third, think of the small private colleges, and the impact this will have on their enrollment and competitiveness. A former budget director for Governor Cuomo was quoted in a recent Chronicle article: “Even though the governor’s proposal has a lot of strings attached for both public and private colleges, our fear is that by the time families understand the fine print, they will have already been convinced by the rhetoric that a state school is where they need to be. . . we’re not in a position to compete with ‘free.’” In short, guess what? How can we compete with the word free when most private colleges are funded by tuition? New York will provide a “new grant program … created for students who attend private colleges in the state, with a maximum award of $3,000. However, private colleges would be required to match the grants, and to freeze tuition for the duration of a student’s grant.” $3,000 dollars! SOUNDS FAIR.

Finally, and the most disturbing to me, is the requirement to stay and work in New York. It reminds me of something: Indentured Servitude. I get it, you are probably thinking I am being overly dramatic. Really, just read the definition. You are forced to live and work to pay off a debt to the State, for an unfree period of time. If you do not abide by these terms and the requirements throughout this article, you will be forced to convert to a student loan, which could financially ruin you. The “Empire State” makes the deal, you should pray they do not alter it further.

And for whom was this “free” tuition designed? It is supposed to help increase the access to 4-year degrees for those who come from low-income families. And while it may, the ridiculous list of caveats and requirements make it extremely difficult for residents to fulfill the deal. Every state has brain-drain issues, but New York suffers the least. As per usual, while this legislation may help some, it may hurt many more. This seems not to be an altruistic push towards increased education for all, but a manipulation of education for state interests.

New York did not do this out of altruism, but out of a desire to further control and exploit a lower-class of residents in New York. By making such steep requirements, by making such threats of financial debt, the Empire State shows it wants its lower-to-middle-class to stay in New York, go to school in New York’s schools, work exclusively in New York, and pay New York taxes. Congratulations, New York, you took what could have been exciting changes to colleges around the country and have produced a poisoned pill to threaten and doom students.


Copyright © Judd Ike Eichorst (2017) All Rights Reserved.

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