In evaluating Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s surprise proposal to provide free tuition to hundreds of thousands of New York college students, it’s valuable to start at the beginning:
• A college education is a benefit not just to students, but to local economies where graduates work.
• The cost of education, even at public universities, burdens graduates for years. Their inability to buy houses and cars because they are repaying student loans undermines the cause of economic development.
Given that, there should be bipartisan agreement that New York needs to act to make higher education available to more people. Cuomo’s proposal, part of his 2017-18 state budget, would phase in a plan to provide free tuition to students who attend a public institution in New York and who have a family or individual annual income less than $125,000.
The problem is, this is New York, where the cost of government is already through the roof. Albany has made this the nation’s highest-taxed state, and education, including the state’s public school system, accounts for a large chunk of spending. Many bridges need to be crossed before the state can offer a broad-based program offering free college tuition.
First and foremost, the plan cannot add to the state’s high level of spending. Cuomo has prided himself on historically low rates of budget growth since his election in 2010. It’s a genuine accomplishment and one that shouldn’t be abandoned in pursuit of this policy, however worthy it may be.
More than just restraining overall spending, though, the state’s goal should be to keep education spending, itself, below its current rate of growth. That requires an overhaul of the entire education apparatus, and if that sounds daunting or unlikely, New York already took on a similar task regarding health care.
The Commission on Health Care Facilities in the 21st Century, informally known as the Berger Commission, was charged with “right-sizing” the number of hospitals and nursing homes in the state, through a regional approach. It wasn’t easy. In Buffalo, the matter wound up in court. But it worked.
Under its influence, Erie County Medical Center and Kaleida Health consolidated under the umbrella of Great Lakes Health System of Western New York. The oversupply of hospital beds was reduced. As a result, the nascent Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus began a growth spurt that continues today.
Something similar is urgently needed for the state’s public university system. A “Berger Commission” for post-secondary education would focus on delivering high-quality education at a lower price and would look at the number of institutions, what they offer and where they overlap or fail to deliver.
Such an approach would clear the way for more affordable, or perhaps even free, tuition – and not just for students in two- and four-year programs. Those in technical programs should also be included in any program of lowering the costs of education.
Free doesn’t mean no cost, of course. Taxpayers would be funding this program and, if this idea moves forward, it should be with the understanding that having benefited from the generosity of taxpayers, students would need to give something back. It could be a portion of their earnings for a set number of years or it could be public service, but it should be something.
More details of Cuomo’s free-tuition idea will come out as he reveals his budget proposal later this month. Watch for how he plans to pay for it to assess its level of seriousness.