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In response to a piece I did last week on the value of clarity and simplicity, a longtime reader wrote to say that one of her favorite moves, when presented with a program proposal, is to “beat it with a simple stick.”  I immediately thought of the line from Spinal Tap, “sometimes in this business you need a good piece of wood.” The idea is that simplicity is more than just a preference; it adds value by itself.

She was right, and we got confirmation that she was right in a report about New York State’s Excelsior scholarship.  

The Excelsior is New York’s take on free college. But it’s complicated. In addition to the paperwork involved in any “last dollar” program, it comes with an income cap, a credit-per-year minimum of 30, and a post-graduation residency requirement. As a result, at most community colleges throughout the state, Excelsior covers between two and four percent of students. More than two-thirds of the people who applied for the scholarship were denied.

Admittedly, it’s still early days for the program, so the numbers may drift upwards a bit. But with complicated paperwork requirements, an extraordinarily high credit requirement, and a post-graduation residency requirement in place, it’s not surprising that the impact has been minimal.  

You’d think something like “free college” would be a game-changer.  From what I’ve read, in Tennessee, it has been. But the strike zone has been narrowed to such a point that it’s only making a marginal difference. In terms of preparing the workforce of New York State for a high-tech future, it’s having much less impact than it could have.

My ideal model for free college is the public library.  Libraries don’t have income caps; Jeff Bezos can use one, if he wants. They’re open to everybody. There’s typically a residency requirement to borrow books, but it expires as soon as the books are returned.  Some libraries are even doing away with overdue fines, especially for children’s books, because they wind up being more trouble than they’re worth.  By keeping it simple, libraries are able to keep bureaucratic costs to a minimum, and patrons know that using the library won’t be a hassle. Perhaps not coincidentally, public libraries don’t have the image problems that many other public institutions have.

The more complicated a program is, the more of its resources will be devoted to compliance. Put differently, the more complicated a program is, the fewer of its resources will be devoted to its mission. Simplicity allows efficiency.

Of course, that’s assuming a single goal. A more cynical read would be that minimizing use was the point of all of those restrictions in the first place.  If someone wanted to be able to claim “free college” for political purposes, but didn’t really want to pay for it, offering it on such terms that almost nobody qualifies would make sense.  If it was only ever intended to be window-dressing, then the restrictions serve a purpose.

As a political culture, America has a problem with anything means-tested. Once a program or institution is identified with the poor, it gets starved of resources.  A truly open version of free college -- meaning simple, uncluttered, and transparent -- could appeal to enough people to keep adequate funding flowing.  But once you start screening out people with options, they tend to reciprocate.

I’ll agree with my friend here. Beat the program with a simple stick.  Get rid of income caps, post-grad residency requirements, and unrealistic credit requirements.  Over time, make it as free, open, and easy to use as a public library. The future is worth it.


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