Here's The Fine Print On The Country's Biggest-Ever Free College Plan

Apr 11, 2017
Originally published on April 11, 2017 8:38 pm

New York state has passed legislation that would create the largest experiment in the country to offer free tuition at two- and four-year colleges. The Excelsior Scholarship, approved over the weekend as part of the state budget, would cover full-time students in the State University of New York system, which totals 64 campuses and 1.3 million students.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, appeared with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and state education leaders in an event hailing the new program, which would begin this fall and is estimated to cost $163 million per year.

Students from families making up to $100,000 a year would be eligible in the program's first year, and by the third year that would increase to $125,000 a year.

It's a big step forward in a national trend: In the last decade, 85 states and municipalities have created similar scholarship programs, most of them for community college tuition. And the idea got plenty of airing in last year's presidential election, when it was championed first by Sanders and then Hillary Clinton.

Still, now that free public college is closer to being a reality, the cheerleading is accompanied by nitpicking among some college affordability advocates. Here are some "catches" in the New York state plan.

  • It's likely to benefit higher-income New Yorkers more.

Tamara Draut, vice president of policy and research at Demos, a progressive-leaning think tank, praised the bill in a statement, but with a caveat: "The bill is what's known as a 'last-dollar' program."

Translation: Students must first apply for, and use, other money like federal Pell Grants, before turning to the scholarship. That, in turn, means that low-income students have less to gain from the scholarship than do students from families who are too wealthy to qualify for those grants.

By the way, the U.S. Department of Education and the IRS recently made it more cumbersome to apply for federal student aid such as Pell Grants. And, President Trump's budget proposal would withhold money from those grants.

  • It pays for just half of the cost of attending college.

New York has a higher-than-average cost of living. Books, fees, food, housing and incidentals aren't covered by this scholarship, so students without family support must work or borrow. "I have students choosing between a MetroCard and lunch, or sharing books with other students," said Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College. She nonetheless calls Excelsior a "wonderful opportunity" and says that to complement the shift, her college will direct more of its own scholarship money toward living expenses.

  • You must attend full time and finish on time.

The Excelsior is good for two years for a two-year program like an associate's degree, or four years for a four-year program. That sounds reasonable, except when you realize that, according to the most recent numbers, just 34 percent of freshmen at public universities nationwide graduated within four years.

Mellow sees this as a healthy incentive for students: "The data are incontrovertible: The faster you can get a student through college, the more likely they are to graduate." There are hardship provisions in the new program for students who must pause their participation.

Still, given the number of students who struggle with work, child care and other responsibilities, this provision makes the program a lot less universal than it might seem at first blush.

  • You must stay in the state.

The Excelsior requires people to work in New York state for at least two years after they receive an associate's degree, or four years post-bachelor's. If they leave, the full grant retroactively becomes a loan. This is seen as a way to ensure that New York taxpayers reap their investment in the form of a more educated workforce.

But Sara Goldrick-Rab of Temple University, a noted "free college" advocate, protested this idea at length on Twitter, calling it a "trick": "as someone who has worked on almost every free college bill, I promise @NYGovCuomo won't be remembered well if he keeps this provision."

In another tweet, she noted that "Free college is about moving beyond a complex, untrustworthy aid system. This move perpetuates existing problems."

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Starting this fall, students in New York state will be able to attend the state's public colleges and universities for free as long as their families make a hundred thousand dollars or less a year. The plan was just approved by New York's legislature this past weekend. And joining us to talk about this is Anya Kamenetz from NPR's Ed team. Hi, Anya.


SHAPIRO: This is by far the largest program to make college available for free, but there are other movements in this direction around the country. What else are we seeing?

KAMENETZ: Yes, absolutely. In fact, in the last decade, about 85 locations have created these place-based scholarships. There's free community college in Tennessee, in Oregon, in Minnesota. And California's currently considering a debt-free college plan which would even be more generous than this New York plan.

SHAPIRO: The New York plan does come with some strings attached if students except the money. Tell us about those.

KAMENETZ: Yes, so you have to attend full-time and finish on time. There's only two years of help with an associate's degree, only four years of the scholarship with a bachelor's degree. That affects a lot of students because we do have a lot of students in public colleges that are attending part-time, or they're working. So they wouldn't be eligible necessarily for that. And you have to live and work in New York for the same number of years afterwards as you received the scholarship - so two years for the two-year or four years for the bachelor's.

SHAPIRO: A lot of students obviously don't know where they're going to work when they graduate. What happens if they don't meet these requirements after having taken the money?

KAMENETZ: Well, if you - you know, if you decide to go to grad school or go into the military or just accept a job out of state, those grants convert into loans. And some affordability advocates have been calling that a little bit of a trick because, you know, the symbolic power and force of a program like this is really to say, free tuition, free college, college in this state is free.

And a lot of people will be making their decisions about college based on that headline. They may not always be reading the fine print. And that's something that we know from other college affordability programs and indeed student loan programs with students and their families. The advocates of the plan say, hey, this is to make sure that taxpayers get the investment back. You know, they're investing in the human capital of the state of New York.

SHAPIRO: The benefit to this to students seems obvious. What are the potential drawbacks?

KAMENETZ: You know, I hate to be a nitpicker. And a lot of the college affordability advocates that I've talked to - even though they hailed the symbolism of this move, they do worry that the money could be better targeted as far class. One example is that, you know, this is tuition only. And half the cost of college is books, housing, et cetera.

And nationally, a survey just showed that 14 percent of community college students deal with homelessness. So there are very severe economic issues that keep certain people out of college. And this is a very big direction of resources that's going to help maybe the middle class a little bit more than those who might be most in need.

SHAPIRO: During the presidential campaign, there was a lot of talk about free college education for all. Does this movement in New York and movement in similar directions in other parts of the country show that this is really taking root in the United States as the way of the future?

KAMENETZ: You know, I do find that there's a lot of momentum behind this idea. And when you talk to - whether it's college presidents or governors like Andrew Cuomo, who started this plan, the notion is, look; we pay for 12 years of education from K-12. Now we're talking about pre-K, and we're talking about college because we really need to take people into the workforce. And a high school diploma doesn't do that anymore.

SHAPIRO: That's Anya Kamenetz from the NPR Ed team. Thanks a lot.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Ari.