Living in a State with Free College Tuition

Feb 2, 2017

Last month, New York State Governor, Andrew Cuomo, announced his plan for tuition-free college in our state college systems, State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY). While many were caught by surprise by this announcement, those who have been following Cuomo’s intentional moves to situate himself as a national leader were not. Free in-state tuition is just one of the many announcements Cuomo has made in his state tour that ring a nice bell to most New Yorkers’ ears. In his State of the State speech at the University at Buffalo last month, for example, he said “in the state of New York today we have just under eight million private sector jobs … more private sector jobs than have ever existed in the state of New York”. He also has been discussing proof that his initiatives, like the “Buffalo Billion”, have returned on their investment: “18 million tourists – up 14 percent since 2010.” Besides giving NYers the ‘feel good’ jitters that our state is on the rise, he hasn’t stopped pumping out new initiatives. In fact, Cuomo’s News page features announcement, after announcement, after announcement of new endeavors, including a “New $19.5 Million Community Health Care Revolving Capital Fund”, “First Two Affordable Housing Projects in $30 Million Storm Recovery Program”, a “Campaign to Raise Awareness of Teen Dating Abuse”, and “$25 Million in Rail Infrastructure Improvements Statewide”. Tuition-free college sounds like a game-changer, especially paired with the statistic that “in Western New York, 85 percent of the families will qualify for tuition-free, public college”.

As someone who believes in higher education and who is not a fan of school debt, I am initially a fan of this idea. Other countries and other states have been successful at making this work. Many graduates are crippled by student debt and the government (democratic and republican) has managed to benefit from students taking out government loans. Recent changes in the law have allowed the government to now charge interest on student loans from the time they are taken out- which means no more deferment. Never has there been a more financially challenging time for new graduates- incredible tuition costs, and even more incredible interest charges. And no one is talking about this.

As a graduate of the SUNY system, I am a little jealous. I had to pay for my bachelor’s and master’s and now I have to pay for the degrees of others. This is a selfish thought, isn’t it? But alas, it is a true feeling. There is no payoff or loan reimbursement offer here, only the promise to continue to pay for the next generations.

Like many employees of small, private institutions in NY, I wonder how this endeavor will further impact enrollment and state funding for private institutions that rely on tuition dollars. It would be easy for the state system to assimilate these colleges and create branch campuses or another college unit, so no jobs, resources, or “economic impact” need be lost entirely. After all, the state colleges will need to do something to accommodate all the new students they are expected to accept. Besides the seemingly topical arguments made by some Presidents at small, private NY institutions, should these institutions cease to exist, we will be losing a piece of this state’s history. The founders of the religious institutions, in particular, were some of the first to settle in the state and they helped the state’s first citizens prosper. Should that history be lost for the benefit of today’s generation or is this a reason worth saving these institutions for? I don’t know. Regardless, this idea won’t go away anytime soon and small institutions will have to innovate for the future. The question is how.

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