There is transparent political pandering, and then there is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to offer free tuition to at SUNY and CUNY.
On paper it sounds great. How can’t it? It’s been ingrained into our psyche since grade school that a college degree is a good thing and is the only avenue to getting a good job and the American Dream and all that.
While that may be true, few things translate from paper to practice.
For starters, there are simply more pressing issues facing the state than offering free tuition at a cost of $161 million a year.
Just look at upstate’s basic infrastructure issues like 100-plus-year-old water lines that break with more and more regularity.
And, a more specific example, the river cities are still under a $136 million consent order to stop raw sewage from dumping into the Hudson when it rains too hard. Municipal budgets are spread pretty thin and there is no way Troy, Albany, Rensselaer, Cohoes, Watervliet and Green Island can afford that kind of money for an issue that has been around since indoor plumbing became something of the norm.
Or, how about a $161 million tax cut? Not one-time rebate checks, like the governor sent out just before Christmas, but a structural tax cut. That just never happens. The only time taxes go down is when a casino comes into your town.
But, taxes aren’t that bad in New York. That must be why people are leaving in record numbers. From July 1, 2014 to July 1, 2015 the state lost 191,367 people, according to the Empire Center. Over the past six years, 846,669 moved out of New York, the largest decline of any state. If taxes were higher, they would probably have stayed.
We have not yet seen details of the governor’s plan, so I hope he works in some sort of residency requirement. Like requiring those getting free tuition to live in this state for a couple years before they are eligible for free tuition. If not, we will have all sorts of unemployed, college students moving here just to get a free education.
And, as Republicans in the state Legislature point out, will the graduate with free degree in hand, have to stick around this state for a while to give something back or just be allowed to come here for four years and then turn around and move back to Vermont or Massachusetts or to the Carolinas where the temperatures don’t dip into the negative numbers?
Just another side note related to population: There are only 402,000 undergraduate students enrolled in SUNY, and another 223,000 enrolled in community colleges. There are more than 19 million New Yorkers. Seems like a lot of money to spend on so few so they can save $6,400 a semester.
Another question is how many of the about 170,000 high school graduates in this state are actually prepared for college? For years education advocates have been screaming about how the state has underfunded Kindergarten, elementary, middle and high schools. What good is having free college tuition if there are those who can’t make it through 12th grade, or those that do aren’t ready for college anyway.
While determining which students are prepared for collage and which are not depends on who you ask. The state Department of Education uses probably the most objective measure – those ready scored at least 75 percent on English tests and 80 percent on math tests – and found 60 percent of graduates were not ready for college.
New York already spends more per student per year – $19,552 – while the results are still lagging – 31st in English and 33rd in math out of the 50 states.
Seems to me, we might better focus on problems at the lower rungs of education rather than offering free higher education.
And what will free tuition at public schools do to private colleges and universities who operate in the free market and still have to charge students tuition? With the return on a college degree, is it really worth having a decade or more of student loans? There is no question a free education will hurt those institutions who still have to charge. How can’t it?
Proponents like to say everyone should have an equal crack at an education and I agree. But, there are enough programs in place – low interest loans and scholarships – for those who can’t afford what is a pretty big bill to go to college and live the American Dream as they see fit.
I think Cuomo is angling for a presidential run in four years and he stole the free tuition idea from Sen. Bernie Sanders with the hopes of winning over the millennials. There is no coincidence the governor made the announcement with the former presidential candidate by his side.
I like Sanders. I would have voted for him if Hillary Clinton didn’t steal the nomination. I didn’t vote for Hillary and neither, according to a bunch of stats and pundits, did a bunch of the left-wingers who were behind Sanders. If they did blindly follow Sanders to Hillary, we would not be swearing in Donald Trump on Jan. 20.
But we are, and there is such discontent over that fact the left of centers and the Democratic party proper, which is very much now in chaos, are just begging for someone to step up.
By offering free tuition, Cuomo is angling for just that.
Jim Franco can be reached at [email protected] or at (518) 878-1000.