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The Price of “Free” Education

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The Price of "Free" Education

Many are cheering New York’s offer of free college to its students. But the proposal has some serious downsides that shouldn’t be ignored.

New York has become the first state in the nation to offer free in-state tuition to students who meet certain criteria. The Excelsior Scholarship will allow students from families making less than $125,000 annually attend state public colleges and universities for free.

Well, not free. But before we wade into the costs of “free” tuition, let’s take a look at a few stats.

College isn’t for everyone. One in three high school graduates are unable to meet basic college-level courses in English, reading, math, and science according to ACT testing. In 2013,  26% of students who took the ACT were not able to reach college readiness benchmarks in any of the aforementioned subjects, while 27% met two or three, and 16% met one. In only two states – Minnesota and Wisconsin – did more than half of high school graduates meet three or more ACT benchmarks but no state exceeded 56%. In Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee, fewer than one third of students met three or four benchmarks.

Yet we are feeding students into a college system that needs to teach remedial math and English to kids who are supposed to be focused on majors and advanced level work. Essentially, college is becoming an extension of the compulsory K-12 education system, picking up the slack where public schools have failed. And, given the push to send all kids to college – whether they major in something useful like engineering or something frivolous like womyn’s studies – it’s not a stretch to imagine compulsory schooling will one day extend beyond 12th grade.

On top of the ill-preparedness of many students, there is an entire generation of students saddled with tremendous student loan debt. As of right now, the burden exceeds credit card debt and is at $1.4 trillion and counting. It is a ticking time bomb, especially for students who cannot turn their $100,000 degree into a lucrative career.

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The ease with which students are also able to take out student loans has raised the cost of college by masking the true cost of tuition. It has also lead to an exponential growth in tuition costs. Between 2004-2005 and 2014-2015 prices for undergraduate tuition (including fees and room and board) rose 33% at public institutions and 26% at private institutions. At the same time, colleges and universities are seeing a growth not in student enrollment or teaching staff but…non-teaching staff. Between 1970 and the fall of 2012, student enrollment rose 8%, teaching staff 60%, and non-teaching staff 138%…more than double teaching staff and 17 times more than students.

The costs of these staff members is, naturally, covered by rising tuition costs. What these staff members do, exactly, is a topic for another column.

So now, back to New York.

Governor Cuomo’s office estimates the cost of “free” tuition will be $163 million in the first year, even though other lawmakers say that estimate is too low, and New York already pays out $1 billion in need-based financial aid each year.

The cost of paying for free tuition will be borne by state taxpayers including the many New York residents who went to school and are now paying back significant student loans. They are, in essence, paying twice for a college education that lawmakers are granting to others for “free.”

The scholarship requires students take 15 credits a semester, or 30 per year. This means that students who wish to work and attend classes part-time for financial reasons not covered by the scholarship would be excluded.

The kicker – and one that many students will probably not be aware of – is that the free tuition requires students to remain in New York state for as many years as they use free tuition. That means, if you go to college for four years, you are required to remain in New York State for four years after graduation.

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Didn’t we abolish indentured servitude? Because that’s what this is.

There will also be weepy, pearl-clutching think pieces from leftist blogs and news outlets down the road, about perpetually unemployed New Yorkers with art majors who are stuck, jobless, in the state for years. Because actions have consequences, but no one will read the fine print on this legislation.

Right now, the requirement is only equal to the number of years spent using “free” tuition. But when tax revenue doesn’t cover the cost, that requirement will inevitably be extended. Especially since NY state unemployment rates are higher than the national average in all regions of the state. Students who leave the state early will pay back the tuition as a loan…provided the state can track them. If it can’t, the state will take a major hit on having graduates pay into the system that educated them. If it can, the state will have a big reach and influence over the lives of a supposedly free people.

This also applies to students with federal loans. Default on it and the government will take whatever they can to recoup that debt. You are not free until you pay off that loan, which is why it’s not possible to include student loans in bankruptcy. The government owns you. Perhaps this is a good lesson for people to learn – when government pays for you, government owns you. Whether in education, food stamps, or health care. You are at their mercy so long as they control the purse strings.

And we need to cut those purse strings. Sooner rather than later.

Feature image: By Free Cooper Union (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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Amy Curtis
About Amy Curtis 29 Articles
I am a mom, nursing student, and conservatarian. I've been a teacher and have a MA in English. I live in Milwaukee, WI (for now) and look forward to starting fresh in a new city soon. When I'm not working or in class, look for me soon at The Binge!

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