What Cuomo's Plan Tells Us About the Future of Free College

Blog Post
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Jan. 5, 2017

Donald Trump’s presidential win took the progressive dream of federal free college off the table months ago - but the recent announcement from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is a key sign that the fight for free college tuition may be going local. In many ways, Cuomo’s plan mirrors Clinton’s: both would make tuition free at public colleges and universities for families earning up to $125,000 per year. At the same time, key differences - like providing scholarship money only to cover tuition costs not already paid for by other federal or state sources and requiring recipients to enroll full-time - highlight the many ways in which a state-level push for free college will face its own unique challenges.

Since there are many ways to implement free college, a state-level push allows states to develop plans that work for their own specific needs that could generate more robust political support since proposals can’t be tied to a federal power grab in a policy arena that has historically belonged to the states. But all of that flexibility comes with certain risks.

For instance, Cuomo’s plan will disproportionately help upper-income students even more that Clinton’s would have. That’s because Cuomo uses existing grant aid to offset the cost of making tuition free. What this means in practice is that his proposal does even less for low-income families than Clinton’s, which allowed Pell and other grant aid to be applied to student’s living costs while using new dollars to cover student tuition. This means that students who already receive need-based tuition scholarships will see no changes in their out-of-pocket expenses, while families who are considerably more well off will see significant benefits.

Yet Cuomo’s decision is rooted in the financial challenge in funding free college, which will be the largest obstacle states will need to overcome. In order to pay for even the most limited free college program, states must identify funding sources that are both sizeable enough to cover the costs of the program and sustainable over the long-term. Historically, states have been retreating from funding for higher education for decades, and the problem has been particularly severe under recessionary forces and budget crises. Any credible promise of free college must not only cover the costs today but also ensure that students can reliably expect the program to be funded in future years. States with a historic commitment to higher education funding could be better suited to implementing free college; these financial considerations could also result in cutting corners in order to make their proposals seem more affordable. Dealing with financial considerations through limiting which students are eligible, the schools where they can enroll, or how the program interacts with other sources of aid could limit the impact of state free college programs.

But even programs, such as the one proposed by Cuomo are still likely to spur enrollment among low-income students, even if it does not result in additional dollars in their pockets. Since most low-income students are already eligible for substantial financial aid from federal sources, the messaging of free college is a great way to encourage students to apply for federal aid. Tennessee Promise, a state program that provides two years of free tuition for recent high school graduates, has done just that, leading to a dramatic improvement in the number of applications for federal student aid.

Ensuring schools have the capacity to deal with enrollment increases stemming from free college is still another challenge. While some New York leaders have indicated room for growth, enrollment growth could still require one-time investments in new buildings and infrastructure or an expansion of teaching and support staff, it could make state plans even more expensive over the long run. If states and schools aren’t able to expand their ability to serve students, quality will suffer, particularly at the open-access schools where enrollment is likely to grow the fastest.

A common refrain in education circles is that the quality of one’s learning should not depend on the zip code they are born into, yet this logic frequently skips over debates about higher education. Because college students are usually over 18 and opt into additional education and training, the implicit assumption is that those students are free to “vote with their feet” if an affordable and high-quality option does not exist in their community. But as the research shows us time and time again, many college students are place-bound and, as such, tend to select the closest schools for their degrees if they enroll at all. By limiting free college to residents of certain states, localized free college proposals deepen this geographic disparity: should Cuomo’s proposal pass, the majority of high school students in New York would be able to enroll at one of 84 state and city universities, while students across the border in New Jersey are unlikely to have any such options.

Given the highly polarized views on free college among the general public and the financial difficulty many states will have paying for these programs, implementation will be dramatically uneven, with students in states that have the resources and political will to implement such a policy coming out far ahead of those who do not.