By Colin Capece ’18
Today’s workforce is incredibly well educated, more so than at any other point in American history. College graduates need to leave school with knowledge of a vibrant global economy and the skills required to flourish in it. According to a 2014 study conducted by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, by the year 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in our economy will require some sort of post-secondary education. That number has more than doubled since 1973, when only 28 percent of workers had attended college prior to entering the workforce.
What these statistics indicate is that the American middle class has seen a dramatic shift in its identity over the last 40 years. Once comprised of blue-collar jobs requiring little or no formal education beyond high school, the ranks of the middle class are now occupied with professional jobs that do. In today’s society having a college degree is essential to finding a quality job and the key to upward mobility.
As the importance of a college education has increased, so too has the cost to obtain one. According to one study, the average price of college tuition has increased by 1120 percent since 1978. Many families understand the incredible value of a college degree, but are unable to afford the cost to obtain one. There are many graduates who are forced to shoulder a crippling amount of debt from student loans in order to pay for their education.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is one of many politicians in recent years to propose a solution to this issue. Earlier this month, he unveiled a plan to reduce the financial burden on students residing in New York who come from lower income families. The program is called the Excelsior Scholarship and it offers to cover the entire cost of tuition for students who are accepted to a college in the State University of New York (SUNY) or City University of New York (CUNY) system. It will also provide free tuition at any of the community colleges located in the state. Tuition at a SUNY school is $6,470, while the average community college tuition is $4,350. The program will provide free tuition to full-time students from families whose annual income is $100,000 or less starting this year. That number will increase to $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 in 2019.
While Governor Cuomo’s idea is noble, it might not come to fruition in the manner he is hoping. At first glance, free college tuition for lower income students seems like a great idea – students who have the brains but not the financial brawn will be able to attend college. However, a more critical analysis of the proposal brings some potential underlying issues to light. There is no such thing as a free ride, and although the plan may be free for some, it comes at a cost to others.
One potential issue with the Excelsior Scholarship is that making the cost of tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools free could potentially diminish the quality of education that students will be receiving. Currently, there are 443,000 students enrolled in the SUNY system and 245,000 in the CUNY system. Cuomo’s administration estimates that the appeal of free tuition will cause enrollment to increase by roughly 10 percent by 2019. That equates to approximately another 69,000 students flooding into the SUNY system in the next three years. All of these new students will greatly increase class sizes, which may lead to less than optimal student performance. Increased class size may become a strain on professors, who may not be able to provide individual attention to students who require help to reach their fullest potential. Students may still be able to earn their degree, but how much they will actually learn, and whether or not they will be adequately prepared to enter the highly competitive working world will be called into question.
It is estimated that it will cost $163 million to put the program into action. To raise the necessary funds, Cuomo is pushing for the renewal of the “millionaire’s tax” which will expire at the end of the year. While extending the millionaire’s tax isn’t a bad idea, this allocation toward education might not be the best use for those funds. With the repeal of the Affordable Care Act on the horizon, it might make more sense to save that money to cushion the blow for the 1.6 million New Yorkers, including recent college graduates, who will lose health care coverage. The lack of available health care could force graduates to leave the state, hindering the growth of the New York economy that has already been on the decline. Citizens of the Empire State already pay some of the highest income taxes in the country, and over the last 20 years, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have moved to states with lower costs of living, such as Texas and Florida. The inability to provide health care could exacerbate this exodus.
The people who really lose out if the Excelsior Scholarship is implemented are middle class students with family incomes greater than $100,000. Given the high cost of living in a state as expensive as New York, many families struggle at that income level. With all of these students attending SUNY and CUNY schools for no cost, the colleges in the system may no longer be able to provide scholarships and other financial aid to students above the Excelsior threshold. For higher achieving students looking to reduce their amount of student debt, the “safety school” option that SUNY and CUNY schools once provided may no longer be available. Cuomo’s plan will also be raising SUNY tuition by $250 every year. In effect, the plan redistributes perceived wealth. Estimates show that of the 443,000 students in the SUNY system, 200,000 are eligible to qualify for the Excelsior program. Simple mathematics shows that the 243,000 students not eligible for the Excelsior program will pay roughly $61,000,000 in additional tuition per year.
Most of the students who will qualify for the Excelsior Scholarship also qualify for the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (NYS TAP). This program provides students with grants of up to $5,165 per year and is available for families with income of less than $80,000. The Excelsior Scholarship will cover the gap between the cost of tuition and the NYS TAP grant, roughly $1,300. Instead, a better plan might be to increase the income threshold for the NYS TAP program to permit more students to receive some sort of assistance.
A final potential pitfall with Governor Cuomo’s proposal is that it discourages the use of work-study programs for eligible students. The tuition rate for in-state residents at SUNY or CUNY schools is $6,470 per year, one of the lowest rates for any state system in the country. As noted, the Excelsior program will address the gap between the full cost of tuition and NYS TAP grants, about $1,300 for most eligible students. If students really want to go to college, they could always find a part time job during the school year or over the summer. For most of New York State, the minimum wage is $10.40. A student would need to work 125 hours per year to pay for the $1,300 gap, less than three hours per week. If a student’s college education all of a sudden becomes free, the incentive to work hard will be lost.
Rising college tuition prices and resulting student debt is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. While the Excelsior Scholarship attempts to address the problem, it may not be the solution needed to keep the Excelsior State moving “Ever Upward.”