Who does tuition-free college help?

Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed that the State of New York should cover the cost of tuition at public universities and colleges within the state. This plan, which would offer aid to families earning up to $125,000, promises to reduce the amount of debt accrued by students classified as “needy” and boost college enrollment by about 10 percent. However, advocates of free tuition programs like this do not consider their full ramifications.

The issue of tuition-free college became a rallying cry for many students all over the country during the politically charged past year. Indeed, as a result of the recent increase in tuition that took effect last semester, groups of students repeatedly voiced their discontent with the way that education services are provided and the cost of education here at USC.

But tuition costs and debt serve a purpose beyond filling a university’s coffers. Tuition can serve as an incentive to actually finish a degree. Debt can serve as an incentive to pursue a competitive career with high potential for upward mobility. After all, if there isn’t a substantial cost associated with college education, there isn’t a strong reason to complete it quickly, as best as one can, and enter the workforce. Compound that with the notorious difficulty of finding well-paying jobs, and staying in school to rack up another degree for free sounds like an excellent option. This would void the original purpose of a free tuition program: to raise graduation rates, put more graduates into the workforce and ultimately increase state tax revenues as a result of higher median incomes.

Some may argue that this perspective ignores the plight of students who could not possibly hope to complete a degree if they had to pay tuition because of economic considerations. As it stands, only 17 percent of students at City University of New York community colleges graduate with an Associate’s Degree, even with the University’s modest tuition. This is likely due, at least in part, to the burdens of everyday financial pressures on students. Unfortunately, Cuomo’s plan does little to help individuals who are so encumbered.

New York’s plan is merely facially progressive. It would only cover tuition costs for students — room and board, miscellaneous costs and living expenses are not included. This means that students at State University of New York campuses will only save a little over $6,000 per year if they are residents. Non-residents could expect to save about $16,000. This pales in comparison to the total cost of attending the State University of New York under the program, which would still vary from over $8,000 to $16,670 per year. Another weakness of the policy proposed by Cuomo is that many needy students already qualify for federal and New York state financial aid that could cover the cost of tuition in full. In other words, low-income students would still have substantial economic burdens that went unaddressed under Cuomo’s plan.

New York’s tuition-free system of education, as it is currently constructed, is clearly inadvisable. Its effectiveness is called into question because it wouldn’t help needy students and would only buttress the advantages of those who can afford to stay in school. The conclusion that New York’s plan is unwise is supported by the fact that Cuomo overlooked the substantial costs associated with such a program. His administration estimates that the program would cost taxpayers $163 million in 2019, but the New York City Independent Budget Office has estimated that it could cost $70 million more — and that is only accounting for the City University of New York. Because there are several State University of New York campuses that were not considered in that estimation, the total cost per year can only go up from Cuomo’s underinflated number.

As it currently appears, New York’s plan is simply a farce. Those who wish to make college affordable for all qualified students ought not look to banning tuition or student loans. Those institutions ensure that students are motivated to pursue careers that contribute to their own personal development and the prosperity of society. Instead, advocates should tackle the root causes of students’ economic burden by demanding that ample living stipends be provided during a student’s education. Finally, due to the constructive effects that it can have on students and their careers, the cost of tuition should not be modified to account for need. Instead, students ought to pay the same tuition if they received the same educational services — but perhaps some could be allowed to pay over a longer period of time than others.