Why State Colleges Shouldn't Be Free (From a State College Grad)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will announce a free tuition plan for SUNY schools today. Bad idea, especially in a state that's already overtaxed.


New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is about to announce plans to gift tuition at State University of New York (SUNY) schools to members of in-state households that make less than $125,000. That hefty income level is the same one that Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton pledged to while running for president last year.

Who makes less than $125,000 in New York state? A vast majority of households, it turns out. Out of about 7.2 million units (circa 2015), around 5 million make less than that sum. Statewide, New York households have a median income of about $61,000, which is $5,000 higher than the national average.

Tuition at four-year state schools averages about $6,470 (far below most other states in the region) and less still for community colleges (room and board at the four year schools will tack on another $10,000 or so to annual costs). The New York Times reports that the program, which adds on to existing programs, will cost somewhere around $163 million a year, though "though the administration acknowledges that estimate could be too low — or too high — depending on participation." That's very…comforting, as is the funding for the program: "It was not immediately clear how the program would be paid for," writes the Times.

As it happens, New York already regularly tops most rankings of combined state and local tax burdens (the Tax Foundation figures the total bite at 12.7 percent of income while Wallethub says it's 13.12 percent). So while there is apparently no ready money for this program, perhaps New Yorkers won't notice or care when their tax bills go up a bit more.

So, why not make all in-state college tuition-free for kids unlucky enough to come from households making less than the 2X the median household income? I write as a SUNY-Buffalo grad (Ph.D. '96), who also has two other degrees from state schools (Temple and Rutgers, M.A. and B.A., respectively).

I can think of at least three immediate concerns. First, as long as you're redistributing income, that $125,000 income figure is way too high, as is plain from the income distribution to the right. There's no question that New York, particularly the closer you get to New York city, is more expensive to live in, but there's no rhyme or reason to naming a six-figure-plus income as the cut-off point (this is even more true in states with lower costs of living). New York doesn't need greater tax-supported burdens that ultimately are going to help middle and upper-middle-class people the most, which is how this will inevitably shake out. The sons and daughters of more-educated, more-remunerated folks are more likely to go to college in the first place and a lot more likely to graduate in four or six years. If we believe that helping the least-advantaged among us is a good thing, then it would be far better to narrow the focus of the program to, say, students coming from the bottom 20 percent of households by income and giving them the sorts of support (intellectual and social) that might help them make it all the way through. As it stands, only about 20 percent of students from the bottom fifth of households have a college degree by age 24. That's the same rate as in 1970. (And of course, educational reform should start at the K-12 level first and foremost, by making charter schools and vouchers more widely available to the students who would gain the most from them.) The fact is that middle-class (much less upper-class) kids do just fine, so if you're trying to increase opportunities for the least privileged among us, it makes sense to start with people who need the most help.

Here are at two other points to consider: All students, regardless of who their parents are, should always have skin in the game. A college diploma raises average lifetime earnings by between $250,000 and $1 million (depending on many factors and assumptions) and it makes sense to ask the person who will cash that premium to pay for at least some part of it, doesn't it? Even a small amount will also dissuade people who are not really committed to college, which is also a good thing. That leads to a larger point: Americans have been defining poverty upwards for at least a couple of decades now, all in a vain attempt to maintain the dysfunctional and unsustainable entitlement state and every loophole and carve-out for wealthier people. If you're in a household making $124,000 a year, you're in the top 16 percent of households and yet you need or deserve free college tuition, on top of non-means-testing of Social Security, Medicare, and whatever new entitlements will be created under a Republican government (the one, under George W. Bush, birthed Medicare prescription drugs after all)? Come on already.

If we agree that government is going to provide certain services and we also believe in limited government, it seems to me we should be narrowing the size and scope of the welfare state and the social safety net. The government should do less and cost less. Prices for everything, from education to health care to housing to retirement, would settle lower than where they are now and any assistance given to the needy would be far less-distorting than when everyone gets some level of free or heavily subsidized ride. This sort of plan obviously has little political backing at the moment, but it's exactly the sort of revolution in thinking that needs to take place if the United States is going to stop its slide toward a sclerotic, low-growth, European-style political economy.

In 2011, Reason TV offered up 3 Reasons We Shouldn't Bail Out Student-Loan Borrowers. Take a look:

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  1. Meanwhile, Cuomo just vetoed a bill to properly fund the state’s public defender offices and is lobbying for a pay increase for state legislators. Somewhere there’s a woochipper with Cuomo’s name on it.

    1. Preet gonna getcha, Jordan.

      1. Hopefully he gets Cuomo. He’s tantalizingly close.

        1. Deblasio is teetering on the edge too.

          I’m beginning to think that after the last few years of nothing but corruption at all levels, my voting neighbors might just go back to electing sort-of Republicans again.

          1. So Bloomberg gets another shot at the mayoralty?

            1. At this point why not. I’ll take mostly-rebuked nanny over flaming communist any day.

  2. The $125,000 limit will fuck over a ton of two-income families that still struggle to make ends meet if they have more than one kid and live in a high cost of living area.

    Color me unsurprised that these morons have a completely arbitrary definition of fairness that ends up hurting people who actually work honest jobs and don’t qualify for their handouts. I guess it’s up to them to pay for everything while getting nothing out of it.

    1. I just assumed that a NY State Rep makes $124,900.

      1. $79k base salary plus per diems and additional modifiers of on commitees.

    2. Cuomo’s throwing a bone to the upstate voters he’s ignored for the last five years.

  3. It might work if NY takes the CA route and redefines “tuition” as “fees.”

    1. Good ole fees. I used to love getting the bill from the CC I went to and seeing:

      Tuition: $250
      Fees: $1,300

  4. Hey, does anyone who doesn’t live in New York want a roommate?


    1. Yea, but I get top bunk and if you touch my drums, I will stab you. In the neck. With a knife.

  5. Free day care at one end wasn’t enough; now I have to pay for other people’s children’s free day care at the other end.

    1. One friend told me point-blank that it’s good to keep young people in school as long as possible to reduce unemployment.

      1. Was that while your friend was mid-huff on an SUV tailpipe?

      2. The US Government said that point blank 60 years ago.

    2. I’m with you, why do we have to pay for these breeders decision to have kids?

      Years ago I was on the local youth athletic association board and a member proposed that any family that participated in our sponsored sport activities pay for no more than two children per activity. I asked why we should do that, our cost to provide the activity (equipment, league registration fees, insurance) didn’t drop to zero for the kids in excess of two per family. He argued that it wouldn’t be fair and would be a hardship for these poor families – as if they had nothing to do with the decision to have more than two kids! And this in a suburban town with an average family income well above the state and national averages.

      Fortunately my argument carried the day, but probably only because most of the folks on the board had two or fewer children. We did vote to allow waiving of fees for anyone so requesting due to hardship. To my knowledge that happened once or twice per season. The typical fee, regardless of the sport, was $25.

      1. So what I’m hearing is that you hate children.

        1. Really, why would say that?!? 🙂

          1. because I’m being sarcastic, sorry that wasn’t clear

            1. This medium is rather imperfect. I know you were being sarcastic and to show my appreciation responded in kind, and dropped a smiley emoji in an attempt to make that clear. Almost as bad as auto-correct.

        2. I have no problem admitting it.

      2. As long as you do not begrudge those kids not wanting to pay for your social security and medicare, since you do not have anyone who is obligated by family bonds to look after you.

        1. obligated by family bonds

          Is that even a thing anymore?

      3. I love seeing parents conglomerate at the bus stop to collect their kids coming home from extra-curriculars. They got the time to stand around, but picking their kids up themselves, nah.

  6. First, as long as you’re redistributing income, that $125,000 income figure is way too high, as is plain from the income distribution to the right.

    What’s with this “as long as” stuff? How about “stop redistributing income”?

    1. I’m pretty sure someone thought of that before. Yet they have continued redistributing income.

      Unless you are a complete cynic, it’s usually possible to choose the less bad of a set of options.

      Yes, all articles and analysis could be replaced with “fuck off slaver” and “fuck you, cut spending”, repeated over and over. But I think they’d probably get fewer page views.

  7. The obvious problem here is that free anything ain’t really free and magical thinking and ignorance won’t make it so.

    1. but, but…unicorn farts make everything awesome!

      1. Don’t they cause global warming?

  8. Education (like anything else) should only be subsidized by government if it generates positive externalities.

    One can make a case (most libertarians won’t) that K-12 education provides positive externalities: We are all better off if we all have a core literacy.

    But no one (libertarian or otherwise) can make any plausible argument that a college degree (let alone a graduate or professional degree) generates positive externalities: All benefits accrue solely to the degree holder.

    Those who cry in their cognac over college costs can endow a scholarship.

    1. Oh bullshit. Twelve years indoctrination in a government run school just results in people who assume that without government, there would be no schools, and then think they are making a cogent argument by repeating terms they don’t understand, like “positive externalities”.

    2. All benefits accrue solely to the degree holder

      Yeah, it’s a good thing the computer you’re typing on and the software that allows you to post your comment weren’t developed by anyone with a college degree.

      Don’t get me wrong, none of this should be funded by or through the government. But to say that college has no “positive externalities” is absurd.

      Moreover, the government schools aren’t very good at imparting literacy. They only seem to “impart” literacy (and numeracy) to people whose parents are already literate (and numerate).

      1. Government schools were created to “socialize” that is, indoctrinate people’s children. John Dewey was explicit about this.

        1. John Dewey was explicit about this.

          Worst* class I ever took:

          In the course catalog: Intro to Scientific Reasoning
          What it actually was: Let’s talk about how great and smart John Dewey was

          Not kidding.

          * = Tied with “Ethics” which was “taught” by the most unethical teacher I’ve ever had

  9. Why State Colleges Shouldn’t Be Free (From a State College Grad)

    Why should your own college credentials have any bearing on your credibility on this topic? Your arguments should stand on their own merits, regardless of where you were lettered.

    1. Try being a little more obnoxiously pedantic. I don’t think you quite got it there.

      1. *pedantically obnoxious

  10. Hey SUNY Buffalo (State) here can I get a what what.

    Dit’s this free college shit include books, rooms and food too?. Cause I may sign up and go back to living in coed dorms and boozing every night

  11. Also if you give someone free stuff they will squander it. “Might as well go to college cuz it’s free. But I’m just going to party the whole time. Woot!” Cuomo is a victim of the ‘good intentions’ delusion: “If we raise our children in loving and progressive households they will grow up with righteous hearts and be ambitious and productive citizens.” The end result of the subsidy is lower quality education for everyone. Which only makes people fragile and dependent. It’s the Bolshevik dream – “Government as God”. (Not sure why there are so many in NY, but I would note that even the Bolshies sacrifice their own children upon the altar of their delusion.)

    1. Ah – the agenda is to keep people stupid. LOL

    2. And to quench ambition – “I don’t want to make over $125k or I’ll lose benefits.”

    3. Uh oh I fear I’m already getting assimilated…. Must… resist…..

      1. You know you secretly covet that top hat, monocle, and cape outfit.

        1. Don’t feed the troll.

  12. I’m also curious whether there is a time limit on the ‘free’ tuition. There are plenty of 30YO ‘students’ at SFCC, where they sort of ask you to pay tuition.

  13. Lets see, If our “household” income is greater than $125,000 out kids go to school for free, plus we can get free health care for the kids and our taxes will probably be lower if we divorce as well.

    Ok so lets get divorced, each claim 1 kid and rent adjacent 1 bedroom apartments.

    Already the economic case for remaining married is weak at best

  14. one more credentialed TopMan with no inkling of what ‘free’ means.

    1. ‘Free’ means everybody pays, right?

      1. Not quite. It means everybody else pays. But not you.

        1. Ooh, that’s even better.

      2. People on welfare don’t pay.

        1. That’s why we need soda taxes.

  15. How long will it be before they move to the next Level of Wailing: “But you’re only giving us free bachelor degrees! My dream is to become a PhD in Womyn’s Studies! You should pay for that too!”

    1. much like toddlers, giving them what they want to just shut them up doesn’t work for long…

    2. From my post below, my friend who graduated with a useless degree and no skills wants the gov’t to pay for him to go to grad school. says it will be a ‘benefit to society’

      1. It may be, keeping him from hurting productivity in a real job

  16. Admission to college should require two years of W-2s, or an honorable discharge from the US military.
    Now you know they really want to go, and can pay for it.
    So eliminate student loans.
    Three big problems solved.

    1. Admission to college should require two years of W-2s,

      here is a related consideration: the drive to increase the minimum wage will have the largest foreseeable impact on teenagers looking for their first jobs. It’s not going to make sense to pay a 16-year old $11 or $15 an hour, so how long before large numbers of people are graduating college having zero job experience of any kind?

      This is likely happening already but hard to imagine it not getting worse. I cannot fathom wanting to be someone’s first stop on the employment train, at least not when the job is a professional one.

      1. Ah, yes, but when that 16-year old grows up a bit, attends college, then graduates, they will finally have enough education and life experience to qualify for that $15/hour minimum wage job…

  17. That’s very…comforting, as is the funding for the program: “It was not immediately clear how the program would be paid for,” clearly a problem for another time (or regime?)

    1. They will pay for it by taxing the rich. Who are these rich people, you ask? Anyone with a household income over 125K.

  18. don’t you just love the mook in the picture eating pizza…there’s not enough edumacation in the whole world to fix that shit!

    1. I wouldn’t hire him to clean toilets.

    2. It’s vegan pizza.

  19. College is resembling America’s 21st century version of public housing projects.

  20. Why should people be insulated from their poor decisions?

    I had a prog friend who graduated with a useless degree, no skills and can’t find a career job. He straight up said that the government should pay for him to go to grad school because it would be a “benefit to society”

    1. Sounds like he is right.

  21. There has to be some value in ME paying for YOU beyond what YOU think YOU’RE entitled to. People who are least likely to attend college no matter what the cost then the cost even if it’s zero simply does not matter.

    Moreover what about the people who can’t attend college for reasons other than price, eg. the people who have to work to support OTHER people. What free stuff do they get and how is it fair that they don’t get a handout?

    Also does this mean that colleges have to control more strictly the number of in state students because otherwise, ‘free’ makes no difference TO the college when they can get 3x the price from out of state students. State universities are routinely cited for breaking their own laws on that score. Coupled with this issue. NYS being a holier than thou true blue state would undoubtedly rush to give free college to every illegal alien that applied as well – hell they might not even have to apply. Just show up, free college is yours.

    We should never forget that with state run programs, $163 million a year is absurdly low. The cost of conferences to discuss the status of the planning status of the status reporting reporting system alone will be multiples of $163 million. Tracking who’s enrolled and who gets paid and how and for how long (4 years? 5? 6?) will cost at least as much as the grant dollars going to pay all this ‘free’ tuition.

  22. Re:”All students, regardless of who their parents are, should always have skin in the game.”

    Well said. The same applies to the healthcare recipients.

    The more people who have college degrees, the more the degrees are devalued. In an extreme example, suppose, as too many liberals seem to want, everyone had a degree. What would the four to six years spent in college get you — besides four to six years wasted while not earning an income and saving for the future?

    Don’t get in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s way. Let him help the Democrats lose even more legislative seats, if that’s possible.

  23. of course helping those who cannot afford to go to college is great still i doubt we should help all..if this person is smart enough, why not help him/her out..but if this person wasn’t just cut out for studying and would rather use online essay services so that they can continue being a student, why should such a person be supported??think it would be nice if state colleges could provide a certain amount of scholarships for those who are smart but just cannot afford going to college..

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