Higher Education Strategy Associates

New York, New York

With the Republicans in control of both Congress and the White house for at least the next two years, the fight for “free tuition” is moving to the state level.  And so to New York, where Governor Cuomo has proposed a form of “free tuition” for anyone attending the City University of New York (CUNY) or the State University of New York (SUNY) and whose family earns less than $125,000.  So what does this mean exactly?

Well, to be clear, it’s not the same kind of free tuition Hillary Clinton was offering back in the election campaign.  (There are many kinds of free tuition, as I noted back here; refresh your memory, if you like).  Clinton was offering – with scant details – a vision where with enough federal funds, states and their public university systems would agree to stop charging tuition fees to students from families below $125,000 in income (or, roughly, 80% of the student population.  That idea was always a little bit pie-in-the-sky: the impracticalities of it were well covered by Kevin Carey at the time.  What Cuomo is offering instead is a top-up plan to make tuition “net free”.  Basically, he’s going to offer students below the cut-off line whatever amount of grants it takes to equal the amount they pay in tuition.  This payment, to be known as an ‘Excelsior Scholarship” (really), is thus equivalent to tuition minus any grants the student is already receiving from the federal or state governments via the Pell grant system.

Now, you might be saying to yourself: hey, that kind of sounds like the Ontario model.  That’s good, isn’t it?  To which the answer is: yes, it is a lot like the Ontario model.  It’s income-targeted net free tuition.  Except a) in some respects it’s going to be more like New Brunswick, with a big step-function (link to: ) at $125,001 instead of a nice smooth slope of benefits like Ontario and b) the threshold for getting full benefits is ludicrously high and has perverse consequences.

What do I mean by perverse consequences?  Well, the thing is that for students at the low-income level of the spectrum, federal and state grants already equal tuition.  So literally none of the money involved here is going to help them.  The biggest winners in the Cuomo proposal are precisely those people who get no grants right now – basically from families with about $80K and up in family income.  And yet these are the people who have the least trouble going to college right now.

The question here is: if you have a couple of hundred million dollars to spend, why would you give it to a group of people who have no issue attending in the first place?  Why not put money where it will be most effective? Columbia University’s Judith Scott-Clayton suggests there’s good evidence that money going to institutions creates better access outcomes than simply limiting the price.

Even Chile, once very keen on full “gratuidad”, has belatedly come around to this realization.  For budgetary reasons, the government was forced to limit its recent introduction of “free” tuition to students from families in the bottom six deciles of income.  This summer, the Chilean Treasury Department published cost estimates for the program.  In its present state the fully-phased in cost of the program will be 607 billion pesos (about $1.25 billion Canadian, or about $950M American).  Adding each of the next four deciles raises the price by about 350 billion, or 58%.  That is to say, free tuition for everyone would cost over 2 trillion pesos, or over three times as much as it costs for the bottom six deciles.  That difference is equal to 1.5% of GDP.  And what would be the purpose of spending all that money?  The very fact that it costs so much is a reflection of the fact that participation from these groups is already so high they don’t really need government help.  What kind of socialist government prioritizes handing over 1.5% of GDP to families in the top four income deciles?

In short, while targeted free tuition makes a great deal of sense, it really does need to be targeted.  If targeting weakens, the program becomes more expensive and less effective.  New York’s plan, clearly, suffers from insufficient targeting.  Ontario’s plan has it about right.  But beware: the Premier occasionally muses about extending the plan to higher income groups and there’s certainly a chance such an idea will make it into the policy conversation as the provincial election approaches.  That way madness and much wasted public funding lies.

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