In the folktale of the fox and the hedgehog, the fox knows a little about many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. In that spirit, New Mexico is doing its impression of a hedgehog, and frankly, I’m impressed.
New Mexico is implementing a program to make public colleges -- both two-year and four-year -- free for students. As far as I know, New York is the only other state to try that since the last free systems started charging in the 1970’s. But New York did it all wrong, with income caps, strict limitations on participation, and most disturbing, post-graduation residency requirements extending as long as college did. Putting all those restrictions on it reduced the cost, but also reduced the relevance of the program, and almost certainly led to a lot of frustrated students and parents who were counting on free college only to discover that they were somehow out of bounds.
New Mexico is doing it much closer to right. It’s taking a universalist approach.
Free tuition is available both for new high school grads and for returning adults. There’s no income cap, and no post-graduation residency requirement.
That’s how to do it.
Income caps make enemies, and they make programs politically vulnerable. Anybody just a hair over an income cap, particularly in an expensive area, may laugh heartily at discovering what other people think they can afford. In my own state of New Jersey, which has a higher population density than Japan (true!) and the housing prices to prove it, the family income cap for free tuition is $65,000 per year. That’s many miles from affluence, but it’s enough to disqualify struggling families from help. New York’s income cap comes closer to reality, but combined with the post-graduation residency requirement, the strike zone is so narrow that the program is likely to generate more enmity than support. Over time, that will likely lead to a death of a thousand cuts for the program.
A universal program, by contrast, has enough beneficiaries to generate a political base of support. It’s also simple and clear enough that people can trust that it will be there for them. That’s not true when eligibility requires multiple levels of screening.
The ideal model is the public library. A library card is free upon request to any resident of a given area. (Sometimes having a job in the area also suffices.) There’s no income cap. You don’t have to fill out tax forms. It’s simple, clean, and transparent. Yes, in theory, it could be regressive; if Warren Buffett wants to borrow books for free from the Omaha Public Library, he can. I lose precisely zero sleep over that. By being available to everybody on a simple and clear basis, libraries build community support and raise the literacy level of the entire community. If that means allowing the occasional CEO to borrow a novel for a vacation, who cares? It’s a trivial price to pay for stable support.
My great worry isn’t that some big shot in Albuquerque will get his kid a sweet deal at UNM. My great worry is that the UNM’s of the world will be forced either to water themselves down with ever-increasing austerity, or to cater exclusively to the wealthy in order to maintain the resources to be effective. Compared to either of those outcomes, some free-riding rich kid is a trivial price to pay.
No program is perfect, of course; a last-dollar program, in itself, may fell well short of the full need that very low-income students have. But that’s fixable if the will is there. The key is maintaining the political will, and that depends on universality. Kudos to New Mexico for knowing one big thing and getting it right. Here’s hoping it’s the first in a long line of hedgehogs.