As the author of Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free, I should be excited by the new plan to make public higher education tuition-free for certain students in New York State. However, the history of American financial aid for college reveals that we need to be very wary of the details of even well-intended policies. In fact, over the last 40 years, the United States has spent trillions of dollars on financial aid to make college more affordable and accessible, and yet the opposite has happened.
In looking at the New York plan, we can see why it will not accomplish its desired goals. The first problem is that it only deals with tuition and not the total cost of attendance. For instance, at the State University of New York, the tuition for this year is $6,470, but the total cost is $24,630 for New York resident students not living at home. And in the case of the City University of New York, tuition is $6,630, but the total cost of attendance is $26,036.
In other words, tuition accounts for only about a quarter of the real cost of going to a public college or university in New York, and so the biggest cause for student debt or nonattendance is not tuition but related costs -- like housing, textbooks, transportation and food. Moreover, most federal and state aid programs only deal with tuition, and so for many low-income students, the plan will be of little or no help.
Another major problem with this plan so far is that it does not appear to try to contain increases in the cost of tuition or related college expenses. Just as in the case health care, if you subsidize something but do not control its costs, it will not be able to achieve its policy goals. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders should know this, because he introduced a bill into the Senate last year that would have regulated tuition increases and would have also forced colleges and universities to spend more on instruction instead of administration.
Sanders’s bill also required colleges and universities to increase their use of full-time faculty members in order to enhance the quality of education. But New York’s plan does not delve into these issues.
The plan also does not deal with huge federal and state tax breaks related to higher education that often go to the wealthiest families. In fact, New York State already spends over $240 million a year on tax credits and deductions for tuition, and more money is sheltered from taxes through the use of 529 College Savings Plans.
It is understandable that Governor Andrew Cuomo wants his state to come up with its own plan, because he can’t expect much help from the new U.S. Congress or president-elect. But it is important to realize that since we have federal, state and institutional forms of aid, we need programs that integrate those different funders.
If Governor Cuomo wants to know what a successful funding plan for higher education should look like, he can examine CUNY’s own successful Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, which funded wraparound services for low-income community college students. One of the great benefits of that program was that, with little additional cost, it was able to improve the graduate rates of low-income students. The program also showed that if you are serious about improving the quality, affordability and accessibility of higher education in America, then you cannot simply focus on free tuition. For example, research on the success of ASAP showed that sometimes the key way to help a student to graduate on time is to give that student financial support for transportation.
It is great that the state of New York wants to do something progressive for higher education, but the devil is in the details. And the history of American college financial aid has shown that well-intentioned programs often backfire if they do not examine unintended consequences. We should promote free public higher education, but only if we do it right.
Robert Samuels is president of UC-AFT and teaches writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
America’s universities are home, more than any place else in our country, to the enterprise of science. That has been an important and proud role for our great universities, and it has produced wonderful discoveries. Besides providing technical progress, science gives our society its headlights, warning us of oncoming hazards. As the pace of change accelerates, we need those headlights brighter than ever. So when a threat looms over the enterprise of science, the universities that are its home need to help address the threat.
The threat is simple. The fossil fuel industry has adopted and powered up infrastructure and methods originally built by the tobacco industry and others to attack and deny science. That effort has coalesced into a large, adaptive and well-camouflaged apparatus that aspires to mimic and rival legitimate science. The science that universities support now has an unprecedented and unprincipled new adversary.
The science-denial machinery is an industrial-strength adversary, and it has big advantages over real science. First, it does not need to win its disputes with real science; it just needs to create a public illusion of a dispute. Then industry’s political forces can be put into play to stop any efforts to address whatever problem science had disclosed, since now it is “disputed science.” Hence the infamous phrase from the tobacco-era science denial operation -- “Doubt is our product.”
Second, the science-denial operatives don’t waste much time in peer-reviewed forums. They head straight to Fox News and talk radio, to committee hearings and editorial pages. Their work is, at its heart, PR dressed up as science but not actual science. So they go directly to their audience -- and the more uninformed the audience, the better.
Our universities and other organizations engaged in the enterprise of science struggle for funding. Not so for the science-denial forces. You may think maintaining this complex science-denial apparatus sounds like a lot of effort. So consider the stakes for the fossil fuel industry. The International Monetary Fund -- made up of smart people, with no apparent conflict of interest -- has calculated the subsidy fossil fuels receive in the United States to be $700 billion annually. That subsidy is mostly what economists call “externalities” -- costs the public has to bear from the product’s harm that should be, under market theory, in the price of the product. These $700-billion-per-year stakes mean that the funding available to the science-denial enterprise is virtually unlimited.
And it’s your adversary. Those of you who either are scientists, or value and want to defend scientists, should beware. You have a powerful, invasive new alien in your ecosystem: it is a rival assuredly, a mimic at best, and an outright predator at worst. Make no mistake: in every dispute that this denial machinery manufactures with real science, it is determined to see real science fail. That is its purpose.
Given the connections between the fossil fuel industry and the new administration, we can’t count on government any longer to resist this predator. Regrettably, that science denial machinery is now probably hardwired into the incoming administration, as shown by the appointment of the fossil-fuel-funded climate denier Myron Ebell to lead the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. This considerably increases the denial machinery’s threat to the enterprise of legitimate science. The hand of industry now works not just behind the science-denial front groups but in the halls of political power.
That makes it all the more important for entities outside government -- notably universities as well as other scientific organizations -- to join together and step up a common defense. It is neither fair nor strategically sensible for universities and scientific associations to expect individual scientists to defend our nation against the science-denial apparatus. Individual scientists are ordinarily not trained in the dark arts of calculated misinformation. Individual scientists are ordinarily not equipped to deal with attacks and harassment on multiple fronts. Individual scientists don’t often have squadrons of spin doctors and public relations experts at their disposal. And they have no institutions devoted to ferreting out the falsehoods or conflicts of interest behind their antagonists.
Individual scientists are trained in the pursuit of truth through the tested methods of science. The science-denial machinery has truth as its enemy, and propaganda and obfuscation -- even outright falsity -- as its method. So the enterprise of science generally, and universities specifically, will need a common strategy to resist this potent and encroaching adversary.
In the Senate, I see the work of this apparatus, and its associated political operation, every day. Do not underestimate its power and ambition. Again, make no mistake: in every dispute that this denial machinery manufactures with real science, it is determined to see real science fail.
Sheldon Whitehouse is a United States senator, a Democrat, representing Rhode Island.