It is safe to say that the idea of free public college has gone dormant at the national level with the election of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress. But a number of states are considering adopting free college plans in light of the Tennessee Promise’s success from both political and enrollment perspectives.1 According to the Education Commission of the States, legislation was introduced in 23 states to adopt some type of free college plans between 2014 and November 2016. These bills died in most states, but five states in addition to Tennessee (Delaware, Kentucky, Minnesota, Oregon, and Rhode Island) enacted free college plans during this period.
On the same day that Republicans officially took control of the U.S. Senate, New York’s Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo announced a proposal to make SUNY and CUNY institutions tuition-free for students with family incomes below $125,000.2 This proposal, which Cuomo introduced alongside Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, would make public colleges tuition-free as a last-dollar scholarship. This appears to be similar to the Tennessee Promise, in which additional state funds are applied only after federal, state, and private grants are used.
While President Obama’s free community college proposal would have been a first-dollar scholarship (supplementing instead of supplanting other aid), Cuomo’s plan would keep the price tag down to about $163 million per year—an important consideration given the state’s other pressing priorities. Because New York is a low-tuition, high-aid state, the neediest students already have their tuition covered by grants and would thus receive no additional funds.
Therefore, the benefits of the program would go to two groups of students. The first group is fairly obvious: middle-income and upper-middle-income families. In New York, $125,000 falls at roughly the 80th percentile of family income—an income level where families may not be able to pay tuition without borrowing, but college enrollment rates are quite high. The second group consists of lower-income students who are induced to enroll by the clear message of free tuition, even though they would have received free tuition without the program. Tennessee’s enrollment boost suggests this group is far from trivial in size.
Students attending New York public colleges currently have fairly modest debt burdens. College Scorecard data show that the median student attending public 2-year colleges graduates with about $10,000 in debt, while students at 4-year colleges graduate with about $20,000 in debt. Will the New York program (if adopted) make a sizable dent on students’ debt burdens? My expectation is that the reduction in debt will not be as much as expected. This is because tuition and fees are less than half of the total cost of attendance at four-year colleges and an even smaller fraction at community colleges. Students will still need to borrow for books and living expenses, which are not covered in Cuomo’s proposal.
This gets back to a seemingly-eternal question in the education policy realm. Given limited resources, is it better to give more money to the neediest students to help them cover living expenses or is it better to give some money to middle-income families in a state with high tax burdens?3 Most politicians seem to prefer the latter, as the message of “free” college and giving money to more students seems to be a political winner. But the former could appeal to politicians who strongly prioritize equity.
But from a researcher’s perspective, which one is better for students as a whole is less clear. (It could even be the case that giving the money to colleges to improve the educational experience while charging higher tuition could be better for students in the long run.) One great thing about America is that there are 50 laboratories of democracy. I hope that states take different pathways in student financial aid and funding colleges to see what works best.
1 It is too early to truly tell whether the program increased educational attainment levels or labor market outcomes, or whether the program has been cost-effective given additional state funding for higher education.
2 I have to gripe about the language in the press release regarding “crushing” student loan debt, particularly given how students can use income-driven repayment plans to reduce the risk of federal loans. But I’m spitting into the wind on this one, given how journalists and politicians routinely use this language that could scare students away from attending college.
3 Some may disagree with the idea that resources are limited, but former White House staffer Zakiya Smith summed it up nicely by stating that there are plenty of other good uses for available funds in any budget.