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On Wednesday I finished a busy week of travel that started last Saturday with a talk at the Latham, N.Y., headquarters of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), a federation of more than 1,300 local unions in New York State that encompasses pre-K to grade 12 educators, school staff, health-care professionals, higher education faculty and staff, and government professionals.

I was there to give a talk based on my book, Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education, and I hope the attendees benefited from what I had to say, but I wanted to share something I learned, or perhaps more accurately was reminded of by the experience: we can and should ask for big things.

The big thing that NYSUT is asking for is an additional $4.7 billion in new funding for public higher education in New York State. This includes $1.44 billion in direct operating support “to increase the number of full-time faculty and better compensate adjuncts,” $267.2 million in student supports meant to help with challenges around food insecurity and mental health, and $3 billion to make the CUNY, SUNY and state community colleges tuition-free.

I will admit that when I heard this amount, I gulped a bit, because it’s far more than the usual ask in these realms. Usually these requests have an “m” instead of a “b” ahead of the “-illion,” so to see that kind of number, $4.7 billion, and attached to an explicit demand to make public postsecondary education tuition-free, is capital-B Bold.

It’s weird that I, the author of a book that explicitly calls for making public postsecondary education tuition-free, was somewhat taken aback by a proposal to do exactly what I’ve been advocating for but let this be a lesson to us all.

So yes, the ask is bold and billions of dollars is a lot of money, but relatively speaking, is it, really?

For example, $4.7 billion is around 10 percent of Harvard’s endowment.

Harvard serves right around 30,000 students total, of which somewhat over 7,000 are undergraduates. The New York State system of higher ed serves more than 600,000 students.

Four point seven billion is around 2 percent of the previous year’s state budget. Again, lots of money, but it doesn’t seem impossible, particularly considering the return on investment the CUNY and SUNY institutions deliver in terms of moving graduates up the economic ladder, as shown in Raj Chetty’s work on social mobility.

Four point seven billion is right around 6 percent of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s net worth. Bloomberg, should he so choose to drop this money on the system under his own initiative, would see his fortune shrink to just over $72 billion.

So yes, lots of money, but also not a lot of money, certainly not a lot of money relative to its potential to change the fortunes of—literally—millions of citizens of New York for the better.

The citizens who will benefit extend well beyond the students, staff and faculty of these colleges and universities, as we should realize that the schools themselves are rooted in communities that see many direct and indirect benefits from the presence of these institutions.

Higher education institutions serve as hubs for employment, culture, technology and other activities. The more robust the institution is, the more the broader community benefits. As I argue in Sustainable. Resilient. Free., education is properly viewed as infrastructure, part of the physical resources necessary for sustaining thriving communities.

All of a sudden, that $4.7 billion is starting to look a little light. Maybe I should get the NYSUT folks on the phone.

Kidding. One thing I learned while at NYSUT headquarters was how thoroughly and precisely the funding has been calculated to meet the need. This is no random ask. These are institutions and laborers who have been required to make do with insufficient funding for too long, a phenomenon not at all unique to New York State and that has become so normalized that when an organization like NYSUT speaks up and says, “Hey, this is what we need to do the work you say you want us to do,” it can feel a little jarring.

In reality, this is simply an attempt to put the system back on a truly sustainable footing.

It’s making good after years of being asked to make do.

There are some hurdles here, including an elite mind-set exemplified by The New York Times just this morning, as of this writing, when they declared Joe Biden’s budget—including a “billionaire tax”—dead on arrival in their top-of-the-page online coverage. Rather than analyzing the potential impact of what Biden was proposing for the country, they adopted the Republican Party’s framing of the political battle.

Funding public goods like education need not be political. This is a benefit that extends to all.

I’m rooting for NYSUT, but I’m actually rooting for the citizens of New York State. The first movers to embrace this framework of reconverting education from a private consumer good back into “the great equalizer” will be ahead of everyone else.

The rest of us, once we see the success of New York State in reorienting the system around benefiting the citizenry, will follow suit, but we’ll never be able to catch up.

I’ve trained myself not to hope for too much in this space, but I have to admit it, I’m excited.

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