With student loan debt at a crisis point in our country, is free tuition the answer?
Earlier this year, New York State announced that it would offer free tuition to the 1.3 million full-time students at its public colleges and universities. Students began applying for the program, called The Excelsior Scholarship, earlier this month.
While some states have similar programs for community college, New York is the first state to make free tuition available to students at four-year universities, and the move has been heralded as much-needed relief for students and their parents.
“We are restoring the promise of the American Dream for the next generation and forging a bold path forward of access and opportunity for the rest of the nation to follow,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said when he signed the bill. “With a college education now a necessity to succeed in today’s economy, I am proud to sign this first-in-the-nation legislation that will make college accessible.”
There’s no doubt that the cost of higher education is at a crisis point in our country. There are currently 44 million Americans carrying $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. Last year the average new grad left school $37,172 in the red. The effects last a lifetime: In 2013, 30 percent of Americans aged 55 to 64 had education debt.
Despite these grim statistics, there have been questions about whether New York’s free tuition program is really a game changer for a higher education system in crisis. Will eliminating tuition fees really increase access to higher education and decrease debt? The short answer is: It’s complicated.
First, it’s important to understand the program. The Excelsior Scholarship is available to students whose families make $100,000 a year or less. (Over the next three years that will rise to $125,000.) For students at state universities, the program is expected to cut the annual cost of attending college by about $26,000 – but that means that a four-year education with room and board, fees, and other expenses will still cost about $57,000.
One of the biggest criticisms of the program is that students must be enrolled in college full time and on track to graduate within two or four years, depending on their program. Many low-income college students attend classes part time in order to spread the cost and be able to work full time. Those students won’t be helped by the Excelsior Scholarship.
A former State University of New York chancellor, D. Bruce Johnstone, does not expect that the program will make higher education more accessible.
“It will help a slice of middle-class students, but it’s only a slice,” he told the New York Times.
“If you’re really concerned about students who are not attending because of the reality or the perception of unaffordability, this is not the way to help them. This is going to cost money, and it will make some parents happy, but I don’t see it moving the accessibility needle.”
In fact, a report on the Oregon Promise Scholarship, which began providing free tuition for full-time community college students in 2016, showed that 60 percent of the money from the program was used to fund the richest 40 percent of students.
“There are a number of Oregon Promise students who, on paper, look like they have the means to afford college. Is that the best use of state dollars? It’s an unanswered question at this point,” Andrea Henderson, executive director of the Oregon Community College Association, told CNN.
In addition to the debate over whether free tuition programs increase accessibility, there are also questions over whether the government should be encouraging more people to go to college.
“If the financial burden is forced on everyone through taxation, fewer people will even consider better options,” like on-the-job learning and other experiential programs, says Arvin Vohra, author of Lies, Damn Lies and College Admissions: An Inquiry Into Education. He points out that many people go to college by default, and the cost is often the only motivation people have to consider alternatives.
Free tuition programs appease consumers without actually improving our higher education system, he argues.
“Free tuition programs aren’t free any more than the military is free,” Vohra reports. “They are expensive and tax funded. They push people away from better forms of education, trick people into believing that degrees and education are the same thing, and flood the market with low-quality education attached to expensive degrees.”
Despite the systematic issues, free college programs (often available in other states based on GPAs and other academic factors) do make a big financial impact for some students.
“Utilizing my scholarship for 100 percent free tuition was a godsend,” says Mike Gnitecki, 32, of Dallas, Texas, who attended the University of Dallas on an academic scholarship that covered tuition and fees. “I was able to finish university with very minimal loans. That put me on the road to feeling confident enough (and debt-free enough) to pursue graduate school, and I was able to obtain my master’s degree.”
Megan Demarchi, 21, graduated college this year with no debt, benefiting from a free tuition program at Concordia University in Irvine, Calif. Although she comes from a middle-class family, Demarchi put herself through college, working two jobs while in school. She says free tuition was instrumental to her success.
“I would not have been able to afford to go to this university if it was not for my tuition being paid for by my scholarship,” she says. “This definitely affected my financial situation, as I am able to search for employment in my chosen field of social media marketing without the crushing weight of student loans.”