Although tuition-free public college will not become a federal policy anytime soon, more states and local communities are considering different variations of free college. There are nearly 200 active college promise or free college programs in the United States, with two states (Arkansas and New York) enacting tuition-free programs in recent weeks.
New York’s Excelsior Scholarship program has garnered quite a bit of attention because it covers students at four-year colleges (most larger programs are limited to less-expensive two-year colleges), because of the conditions attached, and because New York governor Andrew Cuomo is likely to run for president in 2020. Yet the ambitious program (the legislation text starts on page 142 of this .pdf) also has to overcome a number of challenges in order to be truly effective. I discuss three of the key challenges with this program below.
Challenge 1: Will scholarship funds be available to all qualified students? The budget includes $163 million in funding for the program, which is probably far below the amount of money needed to fund all students. Judith Scott-Clayton of Teachers College estimated that an earlier version of the program could cost about $482 million per year. Even requirements that students complete 30 credits per year and clawbacks for students who leave the state after graduation (more on that later) may not bring the cost down enough—particularly if the program is successful in increasing enrollment at public colleges. The budget has a provision that allows awards to be cut or allocated via lottery if funds run short, which is a distinct possibility if the state faces another recession. Needless to say, this would be a PR nightmare for the state.
Challenge 2: Will colleges use fees as a tuition substitute? A full-tuition scholarship sounds great, but students and their families often forget about fees. Right now, fees are a sizable portion of direct educational prices. For example, at SUNY-Albany, tuition is $6,470 and fees are $2,793, while Hostos Community College charges $4,800 in tuition per year for a full-time student alongside $406 in fees. Since the scholarship only covers tuition, the state may pressure colleges to increase fees in an effort to reduce program costs. This happened in Massachusetts for years and still happens in Georgia, both states with large merit-based grant aid programs. Over time, it is quite possible that the value of the grant fails to keep up with inflation as a result—particularly if the state shifts funding from appropriations to student aid and colleges scramble for another revenue source.
Challenge 3: Will the state be able to manage a large “groan” program? Perhaps the most controversial portion of New York’s program is the requirement that students must live and work in the state after college for the same number of years that they received the grant; if they fail to do so, the grant converts to a loan (also known as a “groan” to financial aid wonks). Many people have raised concerns about the fairness of this idea, but here I’ll touch on the logistics of the program. Can the state of New York track students after graduation and see where they both live and work? Will they feel pressures to exempt students who live out of state but work in New York and pay state income taxes? What will the terms of the converted loans look like? There are a lot of unanswered questions here, but it is clear that the state must invest in a larger student loan agency in order to manage this complex of a program.
As Governor Cuomo prepares for a likely presidential bid in 2020, he is counting on the tuition-free college proposal to be one of his signature policy ideas. Some of the biggest concerns with this legislation may take years to develop, but even a period of two or three years may be enough to see whether the program can work effectively around some of the significant concerns noted here.