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“Free” College

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By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK

Betsy DeVos received a great deal of praise from pundits on the right for her quick and calm response to Bernie Sanders during her confirmation hearing to be secretary of education. Sanders asked her if she would be willing to join with those who are working to make “public universities and colleges tuition-free.” DeVos responded, “Senator, that is an interesting idea to discuss, but nothing is actually free. Someone will have to pay for it.” She meant, of course, the taxpayers.
Sanders replied, “Indeed, someone will have to pay for it, but that brings up another discussion.” He did not get the opportunity to engage in that discussion at that moment, but it is a topic that Sanders would love to explore.
He has his talking points down pat, having based much of his presidential campaign upon them. His argument is that the “rich” should be willing to pay the taxes required for a free education at public colleges; and that a fair tax policy can be constructed to provide this service.
This raises the question of what is fair in this regard. Is it “fair,” for example, to expect low-income taxpayers to provide an education that will open an opportunity for college students to secure an upper-class income?
Sanders has his answer: He would require only upper-income taxpayers to carry this burden through a progressive tax structure. Also that providing college educations free of charge for poorer students provides a valuable service to the country, as they will bring the skills they acquire in college into the workforce as productive, taxpaying adults.
The question, then, is can the funds required to pay for free college education be raised by taxing only the “rich”? Are there enough rich people to go around to accomplish this task? Beyond that, should people who decide not to go to college be required to provide a free college education for those who do? Can it be determined that there is a demonstrable public service achieved by providing tuition-free college education?
Some facts and figures are required in this debate to move beyond platitudes about “fairness.” The Beat, an online publication of the Manhattan Institute, a New York based think tank, is providing such data, specifically in reference to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to make New York State’s public colleges free for hundreds of thousands of low and middle-income students. Cuomo calls his proposal Excelsior Scholarships.
The tuition at these schools is already among the nation’s lowest, as a result of New York’s $1 billion, taxpayer-funded Tuition Assistance Program.
Beth Akers, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, writes:
“The major problem with Cuomo’s plan is that the biggest benefits are delivered to some relatively wealthy New York families. The Excelsior Scholarship he proposes has a ‘topoff’ design, which means that the funds will pick up the remaining tab for students’ tuition bills after they have already collected grants from the federal Pell program and the existing state Tuition Assistance Program….
“Both of those programs are means-tested, meaning that poor students receive the largest awards. As a result, students from the lowest-income households are already facing free or deeply discounted tuition. It’s the most well-off families that have the largest uncovered tuition bills, which means they will be the ones to benefit most from Cuomo’s plan.”
Moreover, write Akers, “Those who go to college tend to come from families that are better off financially. This means that Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarships will give support to those who would have gone to college even if there were no financial aid available to them, thereby making the financial aid being proposed by Cuomo regressive in nature….
“To make matters worse for poor students, the governor’s proposal may actually make it more difficult for disadvantaged students to get into college. As the Excelsior Scholarship makes public colleges in New York State cheaper for state residents, more and more students will begin choosing public colleges over private alternatives. If capacity at SUNY colleges doesn’t increase to meet the new demand, colleges will get increasingly selective, which will push the lowest-achieving students, who often happen to be from poorer families, into lower-quality options.”
Ellen Durkin, a reporter for the Daily News, adds an additional insight in the same edition of The Beat:
“Making community college free for CUNY students would cost $138 to $232 million a year, according to a new report from the Independent Budget Office. After President Obama pushed for tuition-free community college in his State of the Union speech a year ago, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams proposed the city take matters into its own hands and scrap the charges at its seven community colleges, asking the IBO to analyze how much it would cost.
“The budget office found that the bill would come out to an average of $3,456 per student, assuming students who currently get federal aid would continue to receive it. The cost would range from $138 million if it was limited to three years for full-time students, to $232 million if it was offered to full and part-time students with no time limit. Tuition for a full-time in-state student is about $4,800 a year at CUNY community colleges.”
Will this data make any difference in the debate over “free” college? Probably not. As the Manhattan Institute’s figures demonstrate, New York State already provides free college for poor students and very low tuition costs for upper-class students at its public colleges. It is hard to not get the impression that Cuomo’s proposal was conceived more as a campaign slogan than to serve a demonstrated need.
It is also hard not to conclude that there will never be an end to the “needy” groups that liberal politicians will seek to help to demonstrate their bona fides as social justice crusaders. If liberal politicians can’t make promises of new social services they have no way of winning votes, no reason for their existence.
Would it be far-fetched, for example, to suggest that, even if we provided completely “free” public colleges for every student, that politicians such as Cuomo would then propose that we also provide these students with taxpayer support for their clothing needs, computers, transportation costs, dental care, cable television — maybe even payments for their spring breaks to help them get the time away from their studies that they need to be productive students?
I am not exaggerating for emphasis. I can see someone like Cuomo and Chuck Schumer rushing to a microphone to propose all these things somewhere down the road. If “rich” kids can go to Fort Lauderdale over spring break, why shouldn’t poorer kids get the chance to go as well?

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Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is fitzpatrijames@sbcglobal.net, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford CT 06492.

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