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NY Doubles Down on Free Tuition

The State of New York has taken the most significant step yet in the growing trend among the states to offer free tuition to students. So far the movement has focused on community colleges, but New York has passed legislation to cover full-time students at its state universities, too. (“Free” should probably always be in quotes for a variety of reasons, but it gets cumbersome.)

There are many caveats about New York’s action before we get carried away. A good place to start is with this report from NPR by Anya Kamenetz, which gets into the various exceptions and built-in controversies with any such plan. For one thing, note the full-time student stipulation. For another, when students graduate they must remain in New York for a specified period or they owe the money back. Gov. Andrew Como sees the step as boosting the economy of his state by producing more highly trained individuals. Supporters say the program is comparable to the movement over a hundred years ago, during the Progressive Era, to offer free high school. States took the lead back then and eventually it became the norm, after much of the world scoffed.

Students from families making up to $100,000 a year would be eligible in the New York program’s first year, and by the third year that would increase to $125,000 a year, according to the report. This means the new benefits would be directed toward the middle class, rather than those of lower income. The argument goes that poor individuals are already eligible for Pell grants and other sources of revenue. The New York program is set to begin this fall and estimated to cost $163 million per year, the NPR report states.

As for the impact on community colleges in New York, it’s hard to say. For two-year colleges in general regarding the basic concept, here is Matt Reed’s take, in Inside Higher Ed. He wonders where the money is going to come from, especially in the next economic downturn when states have less revenue and enrollments go up at community colleges. States don’t have the same unlimited authority to borrow as the federal government.

At the very least, the idea of free tuition is an interesting development worth watching carefully. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that the states represent “laboratories of democracy.” It does seem the 50 states are way ahead of Congress in thinking boldly and trying new ideas.

There is no sign yet of Texas moving in this direction. In fact, leaders at all levels of higher eduction are extremely worried about the budget for the next biennium. Keeping “current services,” will be a challenge.