Believe It Or Not, Free College Comes With a Price

To much fanfare and press releases, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced his free college plan for families in the state earning less than $125,000 a year. There are many problems with his proposal, not the least of which is that “free” only covers tuition. As the mother of a New York City 17-year-old currently going through the college application process, I can assure Governor Cuomo that major expenses come not only from tuition but also room and board. As things stand now, the SUNY (State University of New York) school where my son was accepted will cost us only a few thousand dollars less than the Ivy League college where he’s also been accepted, after accounting for financial aid. However, tuition is not the biggest issue with the governor's plan. Instead of helping “the working class,” as the initiative claims it will, [pullquote position="left"]it may actually end up hurting the poor.

Pushing Others Out

Currently, many Ivy League and other top liberal arts colleges already offer a free ride (including tuition, room and board) to students whose families make less than $60-$75,000 a year. And hundreds of others across the country, both private and state colleges, have tuition merit aid for high-achievers regardless of their family's income. Poor and middle-class kids with good grades and high SAT scores have plenty of options. (Just ask my son, who is in the process of applying to 20 such honors colleges.) I worry that, with the promise of “free” college, middle-class kids without the grades and SATs to apply for merit aid will flood SUNY and CUNY (City University of New York) schools. In the process they may push out poorer kids who might boast the same credentials but lack the family support and resources to also pile on the extracurricular activities and community service that colleges find so attractive. In addition, low-income kids may not have the ability to pay for private schools open to wealthier kids with their same profile. NPR recently reported on a similar initiative in Georgia, saying free tuition is actually leaving low-income and minority students behind:
...evidence suggests that Georgia’s program has widened the gap in college attendance between Blacks and Whites and between those from low- and high-income families. Wait a minute. So a free tuition plan, instead of helping low-income and minority students, actually left them further behind? Yes.

A Decline In Educational Quality

As supporters wax poetic about the days when New York City's public colleges were the envy of the United States (and free to attend), producing Nobel Laureates and helping thousands of immigrants and working poor vault into the middle-class—they neglect to mention that acceptance then was merit-based, not the open admission policy that began in 1969. In fact, CUNY's current Macauley Honors Program is a throwback to those days, a highly-selective college within a college, free to attend, with even some housing included and boasting impressive graduates. The program highlights the most outstanding of these students in subway ads. I point them out to my son: “See how happy they all look? You know what you don’t see right behind them? Their parents, looking even happier, because their kids have no college debt.” But that’s the competitive honors division. If SUNYs and CUNYs become the fallback plan for kids who are lured solely by the concept of “free” and not qualified to get in anywhere else, overall academic quality will go down—which will lead to even more top students in a relentless cycle of a race to the bottom and who will that end up hurting the most? As The Washington Post flat-out states, “[this] plan does nothing for low-income students.” But before we even get to college, we have to talk about high school. According to New York City itself, over half of its high school graduates aren't college-ready. Those who do go on to higher education end up attending or require remedial classes. So K-12 education in the state is not getting the job done. If there are “free” remedial classes waiting down the line, what’s going to motivate high schools to adequately prepare its kids in the present? They can just guiltlessly pass them along to a glorified “high school plus.” And what’s the harm in that? After all, it won't cost anybody anything.
An original version of this post appeared on New York School Talk as Three Pitfalls of Cuomo’s “Free” College Plan for New York State Students.
Alina Adams
Alina Adams is a New York City mom of three school-age children and a New York Times best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, figure-skating mysteries and romance novels. She is a contributing writer to TODAY Show Parenting, Mommy Poppins, BlogHer, Red Tricycle, Café Mom and Kveller. After going through the New York City school application process with her own children and realizing just how ...

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