Free college is a philosophical flashpoint for progressives

Governor Andrew Cuomo recently made New York the first state to offer free college tuition at public universities. But this impressive policy achievement is dividing liberals over whether the goal of progressive public policy should be to provide universal benefits to all, or to target benefits to the poor.

Cuomo’s program takes a modified universalist approach. His program—dubbed the “Excelsior Scholarship”—makes college tuition at the State University of New York campuses free for every student in a household earning less than $125,000.

Though seemingly good on its face, progressives have fretted over the wrinkles to Cuomo’s plan. First, it only zeroes out tuition, which is relatively modest for in-state students at public colleges, and doesn’t assist with daunting room and board costs. For instance, at my alma mater SUNY Geneseo, tuition is $6,470, but room, board, fees, and supplies run in excess of $17,000. Cuomo’s “free college” plan leaves students on the hook for the bulk of these total costs, which could deter many from taking advantage of it.

Second, Cuomo’s plan contains a punitive catch that students who benefit from the Excelsior Scholarship must work in New York for up to four years after graduation or else must repay the entire scholarship. This risk might deter students who can’t predict where they will wind up in four years. But it was the kind of provincial hook that may have been politically necessary to get the state legislature on board with the idea at all.

The bigger issue is that the structure of Cuomo’s program will provide little help to New York’s poorest students, and much more help to middle-class students. The Excelsior Scholarship is structured as a “last dollar” program, meaning it kicks in only after other sources of financial aid, like federal Pell Grants, are exhausted. Pell Grants help low-income students pay for college up to nearly $6,000 per year. That means a low-income Pell Grant recipient gains little to nothing from Cuomo’s free college program.

At the same time, students from families earning six figures get a massive windfall. They’ll each derive thousands of dollars in annual benefits by getting to attend school for free.

In actuality, Cuomo’s plan is a gap-filling policy, extending subsidized public college to the middle-class. Indeed, he expressly pitched his program as “Free-College for the Middle Class.” The program essentially functions as middle-class insurance against earning too much to qualify for Pell Grant assistance. As Mark Huelsman of Demos explains, “the new program when combined with federal grant aid ensures that middle-class families receive the exact same subsidy as working-class families.”

The distributive weight of Cuomo’s program—skewing away from the poor and toward the middle-class—has left many progressives fretting. The New York Times editorial board diminished the program as a “Free* College Plan” for only “one slice of the middle class,” noting that “even though the cost of room and board and books is what’s keeping many poor students out of college, the Excelsior Scholarship covers none of that.” Slate’s Jordan Weissman argued that cutting the poor out of the program’s benefits “somewhat undermines one of the big rationales behind making college tuition-free in the first place.”

The angst over Cuomo’s program is a miniature rekindling of the debate that flared throughout the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed to make college free for everyone. Hillary Clinton criticized this plan as wastefully “paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college.” Clinton instead guaranteed only debt-free college, meaning that those who could afford it would still have to pay their own way. (Toward the end of the Democratic primary, Clinton ultimately proposed free college for families earning below $125,000—the direct predecessor of Cuomo’s plan.)

Proponents of free college argue that higher education is a higher good that should be demonetized so as to be available to all. We let rich and poor alike attend K-12 schools for free, it’s thought, so college shouldn’t be treated any differently. Any regressive impact can be countered by levying progressive taxes on the wealthy. As the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal noted, “We don’t charge upper-income families more to ride the subway or visit a public park in order to ensure that these are public institutions available to all who have the ability and desire to participate in them.”

Critics argue that free college proposals squander resources by needlessly subsidizing the rich. The rich gain the most from free college because they tend to go to expensive schools. Free college also wipes away the sort of private progressive redistribution that exists in college financing today, where the tuition paid by wealthy students goes to subsidize the tuition waived for poorer students. Because wealthy students are the ones paying full tuition today, they’d get the largest windfall if college suddenly became free. New America’s Kevin Carey called Sanders’s free college plan “wasteful, unfair, and ultimately undermines the long-term interests of low-income students.”

There’s no right answer here, because this is ultimately a debate about values. And those values will dictate the future of American progressivism. Do progressives want an agenda that will create more universally shared public goods? That would divorce more essential goods and services from ability to pay, providing free access to rich and poor alike.

Or do progressives want to redistribute resources to provide assistance to those who need it most? This would target public spending toward the poor, cutting out wealthier Americans through means tests and income cutoffs.

That’s the deeper philosophical debate rankling progressives over New York’s new “free” college program. Cuomo took a side, building on federal aid to low-income students to make SUNY schools public goods universally available to all middle-class students. He has made his state a laboratory for one way of expanding affordable access to higher education. Progressives nationwide will have to decide if that’s the policy angle that they want to replicate.

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The higher education tax on working families

Over the course of the Democratic presidential primary campaign, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have elevated the issue of the ever-growing cost of college. They have sparred over how to make higher education more accessible to low-income students, and whether higher education should be universally free or simply guarantee that students can attend without incurring debt.

What has gone somewhat understated during the course of the debate is the full severity of the burden that exorbitant college tuition imposes not just on today’s students and recent graduates, but on all American working families. And this burden isn’t just a temporary hit around college years, but in fact dogs families for most of their working lives.

First, some background numbers: The average cost of a four-year degree with room and board at an in-state public college is now nearly $80,000. For a private college, it’s more than $130,000—and many elite colleges are much more. As tuition rises, each college graduating class becomes the most highly indebted in history. In the class of 2015, for example, 71 percent of students graduated with debt, carrying an average student debt load of $35,000.

This staggering debt load tells us several things. Most obviously, it imposes an immediate financial burden on young people as soon as they hit the workforce. It they’re lucky, they will have six months to begin repaying their loans. But the weight of these loans causes more and more young people to defer purchases of cars and homes, and likely delays them from marriage and having children.

But it also means that families cannot keep up with the rising cost of college. It’s absurd to expect the average American family to finance some $100,000 (and growing) in education for each of their children during a time when median incomes have been stagnant for generations and economic insecurity has only deepened. But both social norms and federal financial aid policy ingrain an expectation that most families will contribute some of the cost of college, and that families should save early and often for their children’s degrees.

Yet four out of five Americans now experience a bout of unemployment or other economic hardship at some point during their careers. During hard times, many families face little choice but to dip into their college savings just to get by. Students are left taking on more debt, and families are helpless to prevent it because, despite their best efforts, years of hard savings can be wiped away by an economic downturn that costs them their job.

So let’s follow a 2015 college graduate through the course of her working life. On a standard repayment plan, she’ll need ten years to repay her student loans, finally paying off her education when she’s in her early thirties. She’ll then likely soon need to begin saving for her own children’s college education, in the hopes of relieving them from a debt load like her own. But there’s an eighty percent chance that her and her spouse fall into joblessness at some point, and the family may have to spend money saved for college to cover basic expenses. This causes her children to take on more student loans than they would otherwise, graduating with higher debt, and the cycle repeats.

All told, the unbearable cost of college imposes a perpetual education tax on working families. First, they spend a decade or more paying off their own debt; then they spend the following decade or two saving, often in vain, for their own children’s education.

And this is truly a tax, as government has systematically disinvested in higher education for thirty years. As states reduce financing for public colleges, the cost of attendance is shifted on to the backs of working families and students.

We can argue about how to fix this—about whether college should be free for all or should be means-tested and guaranteed debt-free. The escalating cost of college resembles the struggle to contain healthcare costs, so perhaps similar reforms are needed to control college costs.

But one thing is certain: The burdens of the current system are unsustainable for a healthy economy. Higher education has become a necessary credential to have a shot at a decent middle-class life, but we’ve made affording that credential an exhausting, depleting ordeal for millions of families.