Double Dipping: How “Free” College Forces Students To Take the Same Course (and Taxpayers to Pay For It) Twice

“Free” college is in the news these days because New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, with the support of Hillary Clinton,  triumphantly signed a bill that will waive City and State college tuition for families earning less than $100,000 a year.

That makes it a perfect time to take a critical look at what New York City already offers in the way of a no-cost higher education, as well as the bait and switch that frequently accompanies it, even as it leaves those taxpayers footing the bill paying double for the same classes.

NYC is home to several selective “Early College” high-schools, where students spend the first two years tackling an accelerated high school curriculum, and the second two years working on an Associate’s Degree. There are also several public high schools in all five boroughs, some starting in 6th grade, some ending in “Year 14” (i.e., two years after what would be considered traditional graduation), where, due to a partnership with city and community colleges, students can take on-campus classes and earn credits toward an Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree.

Finally, numerous institutions, from Specialized Schools to Screened Schools, offer Advanced Placement classes (although which ones, how many, and who qualifies vary widely from school to school), where taking an exam at the end of the year and scoring highly can theoretically lead to earning credits and skipping the same course at the college level.

All of these public school opportunities are ostensibly “free” to NYC families. The main bonus is that kids can live at home before they matriculate, bypassing the biggest stumbling block of Cuomo’s plan:  tuition is only a small piece of the whole puzzle. For instance, my son got a full tuition merit scholarship to several City and State schools. But what we’d have to pay in room, board, books, fees, transportation and other expenses is only a few thousand less than the purely needs-based scholarship he received from an Ivy League school. Free City and State tuition isn’t that much of a gift to working families, unless students live at home (which I did, so I am in no way discounting the practice).  But that’s just not always practical or desirable for many college students.

In addition to a Specialized High School, four years ago my son also got into Bard Early College in Queens, which we liked a lot, and were excited about the possibility of him graduating with both a High School Diploma and an Associate’s Degree. Except then we learned there was a bit of an obfuscation going on. Unless you went on to Bard College, not all of the earned credits would transfer. City and State schools would take some, usually offering students Sophomore standing, but, because Bard Early College High School is a Dual Enrollment program, their Associate’s degree is not considered legitimate by most colleges.

Meanwhile, at the Specialized High School he ended up attending, my son started taking AP classes his sophomore year, earning primarily 5’s and 4’s on his exams. (The highest score is 5.) Yet very few private universities will accept these classes in lieu of college classwork, and even the City and State schools evaluate on a case-by-case basis and might not honor all of them. That means my son will likely end up retaking much of the material he’s already covered – and taxpayers’ will pick up the tab for the enforced redundancy. He is hardly the only one.

In this manner, NY ends up paying for students to take the same courses twice, potentially prolonging the years it would take them to get their degrees, especially if they are also working in order to cover other expenses.

Is that really the best use of students’ time, not to mention our city and state’s limited educational funds? 

Critics already charge that Cuomo’s plan will hurt those it’s intended to help, and that’s even before you throw in the double-dipping, where nobody wins, and everyone pays the price for “free.”

What do you think?

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