Free college: the New York experiment and the future of tuition

By Brittany Dekorte
Deputy Editor

New year, new president, new legislators in all levels of government, and new members of WCC’s Board of Trustees: all add up to a lot of changes in the near future.

One change that the students will have their eyes on around the country will be education: policy, curriculum, and most importantly to college students, funding and tuition costs. Two recent moves could have impact on school funding and tuition costs.

On Tuesday, Jan 3, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, announced a proposal for free college tuition in his state, alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a New York native and former contender for the democratic presidential nomination. Sanders ran his campaign based around free college and single-payer healthcare.

Similar to single-payer health care, the United States is one of the few developed countries that doesn’t offer free college: Two dozen countries in Europe, north Africa, and central/south America offer free college to their citizens. Many countries in Europe, like France and Sweden, have free tuition available to all EU countries, according to Edvisors.

The proposal, in simplest terms, is that the state of New York will give grants that will cover the entire cost of college, or makeup the difference between federal grants and the remaining cost of tuition, to every student whose families earn less than $125,000 per year, a proposal that is similar to the platform Hillary Clinton ran on for education.

This is where arguments crop up about the structuring of paying for education, and the difference between welfare and entitlements. Entitlements, like social security and medicare, benefit everyone and are paid into by everyone no matter their socioeconomic status. Due to this, they are viewed in a better light by the general public. This is how it works in most of the countries who offer free higher education.

The plan proposed by Cuomo would be a welfare program of sorts; paid for by tax dollars, benefiting only a certain sector of the population. While many welfare programs are necessary in our current system to keep people healthy, clothed and fed, they are often attacked as a redistribution of wealth and are the first programs to be cut when there are budget shortfalls.

If New York ends up doing this, though, it could set up a domino effect, much life we’ve seen in the past with recreational marijuana passage. Once one state sets a precedent, other states watch closely and copy, often improving on the original idea and expanding it. Once enough states have programs like this, the federal government is forced to take a loot and will often pass something of their own. This is how local grass roots can lead to change around the country; it may be slow growing, but it gets there.

The state by state model is how we ended up with our current free public schools, too. The first tax funded, open to the public state schools were opened in Massachusetts in the 1600s, and public schools were common throughout New England by the mid–1800s, according to American ‘Education: The Colonial Experience’ by Lawrence Cremin.

We ended up with public education for the same reason we end up with many of our public amenities: We work better as a whole when the least of us are supported. There is a great quote by author and educator John Green that puts it simply:

“Public education does not exist for the benefit of students or the benefit of their parents. It exists for the benefit of the social order. We have discovered as a species that it is useful to have an educated population. You do not need to be a student or have a child who is a student to benefit from public education. Every second of every day of your life, you benefit from public education. So let me explain why I like to pay taxes for schools, even though I don’t personally have a kid in school: It’s because I don’t like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.”

WCC’s tuition, being a community college, is relatively inexpensive compared to colleges and universities in the area and around the country. Our tuition rates are also locked in through Spring/Summer semester of 2017; the WCC website has current rates listed through then. In-district and in-state tuition rates haven’t been raised since 2012. Last summer’s passage of the WCC tax millage provides an important measure of financial stability, though the college’s chief financial officer, William Johnson, notes many other factors also play roles in decisions about tuition rates for fall.

But who knows, maybe by 2018, Michigan will be looking into a plan similar to New York’s plan.

Editor’s note: The column has been updated to correct an incompletely researched statement about the prospects for tuition rates for fall 2017.

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