In the modern American political arena there’s no shortage of topics that evoke impassioned responses from all sides. While the range of political discussions ever at play run a wide gambit, one key demographic that both parties are desperate to engage remains young voters. 2016’s Presidential election provides perhaps the most recent example of this, but the trend is hardly a new one. While the topics of both education and student loan reform remain prominent in the hearts and minds of many differing demographics, young voters are perhaps the demographic most engaged by these topics. It seems little surprise then that New York’s recent legislation aimed at providing free tuition to middle and low income families is drawing nationwide attention. Likewise, there’s little surprise to be found in the fact that it is drawing both praise and criticism. While some on the Left herald it as a step forward and an accomplishment, others feels that it does too little for those most at need. While some on the Right see value in an attempt at offering greater educational opportunities, others are more concerned with the cost to taxpayers and the question of further state overreach.
What It Is
Let’s start with the specifics. “Proposed by Gov. Cuomo in January, the ‘Excelsior Scholarship’ was included in the state’s budget and passed into law by the New York state legislature on April 9th. Three days later, Hillary Clinton joined the New York governor for a bill signing ceremony.” The stated goal of the program is to increase the opportunities available to middle and low income residents of New York state. And how is New York hoping to accomplish this? By providing “free tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities for in-state students from households earning up to $100,000.” While some sources are reporting that the income cap is set at $125,000 – it is worth noting that while that increase is slated for the future, it isn’t planned for implementation until 2019. Now – it’s worth also drawing the attention to the fact that while this allows for free tuition specifically, it does not provide for room, board, text books, etc. The benefit remains a substantial one, but as the costs of room and board in New York can be exceptionally high the legislation does leave a large gap for students to fill.
Who Is Accountable?
Now – the immediate questions many ask, regardless of political affiliation, is regarding accountability and a return on investment. By accountability – the question often asked is how to ensure that students remain on track and working at an appropriate pace. Essentially, the concern is that tax dollars not be squandered if the student is not progressing appropriately. By return on investment – the question often asked is how does the state see a return on the funding they will be providing? The Excelsior Scholarship attempts to address both of these concerns. First, the new legislation will require that students who accept the funding to graduate within the time period deemed the norm for their degree (the standard examples being a two-year or four-year variant). Second, the legislation will also require students who accept the funding live and work within the state for the same amount of time that they attended college: presumably either two or four years.
Efforts to assess the strengths, weaknesses, and values of this legislation center largely around three key points: the burden forced upon the taxpayers, the reduced costs and burdens for qualifying students, and the potential for long term growth within crucial areas such as academia, research, and the economy.
Who Pays for It?
The first of these points, that of the burden being forced upon the taxpayers, tends to be the primary concern for those on the Right. The essential logic behind this concern is straight forward and difficult to refute. It stresses that reducing the costs to students doesn’t mean the universities will run for free and without expense. Indeed – the cost will be put on the backs of New York state’s taxpayers. However noble the cause may be, the underlying financial concern must be considered – and many conservatives are vocally raising this concern. To draw directly, as many have, on Mary Reim’s commentary from The Daily Signal: “Indeed, offering free college to students means that someone else is now paying for it: New York taxpayers, many of whom do not hold bachelor’s degrees themselves and will likely earn less in the future than their college-going counterparts for whom they are now footing the bill.”
Now – the second of these points, that of the reduction of costs for qualifying students, carries the clear merit of being an attempt to increase the opportunities for middle and lower income students. The argument has long been made that higher education provides the opportunity to better oneself both intellectually and professionally. Providing increased access to higher education, then, is a means of allowing for this precise betterment. However – concerns have been raised by some on the Left that the benefits offered are both too limited in scope and should focus more on the lowest income brackets.
What Are the Benefits?
This, in turn, leads us to the final of the central points: that of the anticipated impacts on growth for varying fields including research, academia, and the economy itself. While the prior example provided a ‘moral imperative’ line of thinking for justifying this legislation, this approach is far more concerned with the longer timeline. Under this line of thinking increasing the access of lower and middle income students to higher education means more than simply giving them opportunities: it also means investing in the intellectual growth of our coming generations. New researchers, scientists, programmers, teachers, and more will be born of this program. And while there is often a concern of students acquiring an education and leaving the state, the program itself requires the student commit as much time back to living and working in their state as they did to obtaining their degree. This avoids the potential for brain drain, and may well be a force that incentivizes economic growth in the coming years.
Is It Worth It?
The effort of attempting to assess the value of this legislation will, ultimately, be left to the following years. The reality of this is made clear in the fact that we cannot assess the full scope of the initial impacts and costs until the scholarship has been in use for a notable length of time. However, there is a clear and pressing need for reforming the existing educational and student loan systems. “Regardless of the new free college plan’s flaws, the status quo of college education for lower- and middle-class Americans is not sustainable. Roughly three out of every five student loan borrowers are not making any progress paying down their principal loan balance three years after leaving school; that fraction only decreases to 57% seven years post-college.” Without change, the prospects are bleak. And while voices may raise in praise or dissent as to what form these changes should take – the call for action is being heard across this nation.
- NY’s Free Tuition Program Blasted by Both Right and Left – Fox News
- Free Tuition in New York Adds Powerful Pull at Decision Deadline – NY Times
- The True Costs of New York’s Free College Program – The Daily Signal
- This U.S. State’s Free College Plan Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be – Fortune
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