With much fanfare and press releases, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his Free College plan for families earning less than $125,000 a year. There are many problems with his proposal, not the least of which is that “free” only covers tuition. As the mother of a New York City 17-year-old currently going through the application process, I can assure Governor Cuomo that major expenses come not only from tuition but also room and board. As things stand now, the SUNY university where my son has been accepted will cost us only a few thousand dollars less than the Ivy League college where he’s also been accepted, after accounting for financial aid. But that’s not the biggest issue with this plan. The biggest issue is that, like many initiatives touted as helping “the working class,” this latest one may actually end up hurting the poor in three different (and occasionally overlapping) ways.
Lower-Achieving Middle-Class Students Push Out Poorer Ones
Currently, many Ivy League and other top liberal arts colleges already offer a free ride (including tuition, room, and board) to students whose families make less than $60-$75K a year. And hundreds of others across the country, both private and state colleges, have tuition merit aid for high-achievers regardless of family income. Plus, don’t forget Federal Pell Grants. Poor and middle-class kids with good grades and high SAT scores have plenty of options. (Ask my son, who is in the process of applying to 20 such Honors Colleges!) I worry that, with the promise of “FREE” college, middle-class kids without the grades and SATs to apply for merit aid will flood SUNY and CUNY schools. In the process they may push out poorer kids who might have the same credentials, but lack the family support and resources to also pile on the extracurricular activities and community service that colleges find so attractive. In addition, low-income kids may not have the ability to pay for private schools open to wealthier kids with their same profile.
As NPR reported about a similar initiative down South, “evidence suggests that Georgia’s program has widened the gap in college attendance between blacks and whites and between those from low- and high-income families. Wait a minute. So a free tuition plan, instead of helping low-income and minority students, actually left them further behind? Yes.”
A Decline In Educational Quality
As supporters wax poetic about the days when NYC public colleges were the envy of the United States – and free to attend, producing Nobel Laureates and helping thousands of immigrants and working poor vault into the middle-class — they neglect to mention that acceptance then was merit-based, not the Open Admission policy that began in 1969. In fact, the current CUNY Macauley Honors Program is a throwback to those days, a highly-selective college within a college, free to attend, with even some housing included, and boasting impressive graduates. Macauley highlights the most outstanding of these students in subway ads. I point them out to my son: “See how happy they all look? You know what you don’t see right behind them? Their parents, looking even happier, because their kids have no college debt.”
But that’s the competitive Honors division. If SUNYs and CUNYs become the fallback plan for kids lured solely by “FREE” and not qualified to get in anywhere else, overall academic quality will go down. Which will then turn off even more top students in a relentless cycle of a race to the bottom. And who will that end up hurting the most?
As The Washington Post flat-out states, “[this] plan does nothing for low-income students.”
Passing The Educational Buck
Finally, we’re talking about college, when, according to NYC itself, over half our high-school graduates are not college-ready. Those who do end up attending require remedial classes. So K-12 is not getting the job done. If they know there are “FREE” remedial classes waiting, what’s going to motivate high-schools to adequately prepare kids? They can just guiltlessly pass them along to a glorified “High-School Plus.”
And what’s the harm in that? After all, it doesn’t cost anybody anything….