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.