The Case For Free College Tuition

The Case For Free College Tuition
Source: AP
Source: AP

As a recent graduate having to pay off my own loans, and as the youngest member of the New York State Legislature, student debt and college affordability are very important issues to me. I know what it's like to have the specter of a mountain of debt awaiting, and know what it's like to be beholden to those monthly payments.

That's why making my state's public colleges more affordable has been a top priority since being elected in 2012. And that's why, earlier this year, I introduced a plan in the New York State Assembly called Tuition-Free NY

Tuition-Free NY would provide free undergraduate tuition for all students admitted to a State University (SUNY) or City University (CUNY) that fulfill requirements of community service and residency after graduation. 

Here are six some common misconceptions about college affordability. 

1. The value of a college education is declining.

False.

Affordable access to college is crucial to give more of our students the education needed to succeed. According to the U.S. Census, students who attain a bachelor's degree, on average, earn significantly more income over the course of their lifetime than those without a college education (see below).

Just the thought of student loan debt can be a huge road block for many families. By making state college tuition-free, we would enable countless more students to pursue studies, thereby creating not only a more well-educated workforce capable of attracting businesses and jobs, but also a higher-earning society.


2. While private college costs have skyrocketed, public tuition has not.

False.

In New York State, the price of SUNY and CUNY tuition has skyrocketed. According to tuition data provided by SUNY and CUNY, over the past 30 years, the price of tuition from both has risen by over 400%. 

Families and students can’t keep up with rising costs and are taking out more loans. This amounts to less disposable income being spent in our local economies, and more money being sent to big bank lenders. More student loan debt is negatively impacting young graduates, their families and our economy. Unless we change the system, it will only continue to get worse. 

3. Student loan debt is not a having significant impact on young graduates.

False.

According to a Pew Research study on “The Value of College,” student loan debt is not only making it harder for graduates to pay other bills in their day-to-day lives, but is also making it more difficult to buy a home, choose a career and, for some, start a family.


4. We can't afford a system of free public tuition.

False.

Tuition-Free NY would account for about 1% of New York State’s entire budget. An investment of 1% would provide free tuition for hundreds of thousands of students every year. It would offer them future opportunities, increase post-graduate purchasing power and keep them in the state for at least five years — per the legislation — to contribute to our local and state economy. It would provide revenue to New York in the process, all of which contributes toward paying down that already-modest 1% upfront investment. 

Tuition-Free NY and programs like it will pay for itself by keeping bright, young minds in-state, maintaining a highly educated workforce and encouraging community service.


5. Student loan debt is not a crisis.

False. 

With outstanding student loan debt at an all-time record high of about $1.2 trillion, serious action must be taken. Unbelievably, our nation’s student debt has eclipsed both auto loan debt and credit card debt. 

According to the Pew Research Center, about 1 out of 5 (19%) of the nation’s households owed student debt in 2010, and a record 40% of all households headed by someone younger than age 35 owe such debt.

Among households owing student debt, the average outstanding student loan balance increased from $23,349 in 2007 to $26,682 in 2010. Most debtor households had less than $50,000 in outstanding student debt in 2010, but the share of households owing elevated amounts has increased. In 2007, 10% of student debtors owed more than $54,238. By 2010, 10% of student debtor households owed more than $61,894 when adjusted for inflation.

This is not a possible crisis or impending crisis. The crisis arrived some time ago and is only getting worse as time goes on and no significant action is taken.

6. There is no political will to make public college tuition-free.

False.

Fortunately, some states and federal legislators — notably, Senators Gillibrand and Warren — have begun to take action. Even one of the reddest states in the nation, Tennessee, recently approved a law to make their community colleges tuition-free.

In New York, significant attention has been paid to Tuition-Free NY as it has continued to gain momentum.  Over 40 assembly members, from both parties, have sponsored my legislation and, earlier this month, the bill passed the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee by an overwhelming, bipartisan 21-3 vote.  

Earlier this year, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed that some of the same provisions in Tuition-Free NY be used to implement a STEM scholarship to cover public college tuition for the highest-performing students — many of whom would’ve had their tuition costs covered by other scholarships regardless given their academic credentials. 

We can’t afford to work around the edges of this crisis any longer. We need serious, system-changing reforms in every state to bend the college cost curve for all of our students, not a tiny fraction of high-achievers.  And when our public colleges become freer, intense pressure will be on our nation’s private colleges to better compete.