Letter-Writing Wednesday: Three Cheers for Free College

Letter-Writing Wednesday: Three Cheers for Free College April 12, 2017


[I sent a copy of this letter to Gov. Cuomo, my state senator and state representative.]

To whom it may concern:

I’m writing to applaud New York State’s successful passage of a budget measure that makes tuition free for qualifying students at two-year and four-year public colleges. Our governor and our legislative leaders deserve the credit for making this happen. It’s a a smart and generous political idea that I hope other states adopt, and I’m proud to see New York in the vanguard of progressive action during this dark time for our country.

With the U.S. economy shifting away from manual labor and toward knowledge-based industries like software, a college degree is more essential than ever to secure a competitive, good-paying job. But the explosive growth of tuition has put college out of reach for many promising students from poorer families, leaving them prey to predatory for-profit institutions or burdening them with a lifetime of crippling debt. In a small but real way, this measure is a step to fight back against this widening inequality and toward a society that guarantees equality of opportunity, where access to higher education is based on merit rather than family income.

The part of this plan that’s drawn the most criticism is a provision which requires the graduate to live in New York after graduation for the same number of years that they attended college, on penalty of the grant converting to a loan. While I understand the objection to this, on balance I believe it’s fair. Although the free-tuition program is surprisingly inexpensive – just $163 million per year out of an overall state budget of $153 billion, or about 0.1% – it’s only fair that people who take advantage of it return the favor by living and working in the state and contributing to the tax base, helping to fund the same benefit for others that they had for themselves. It’s a prudent measure that will help keep the cost of this offer from becoming unsustainable.

In the long run, our state and our society benefit from a more educated populace. Increasing levels of education reduce criminality, raise lifetime income, lead to more innovation and stronger economic growth. It’s the classic example of an investment that pays for itself. With this measure, New York State has recognized this incontrovertible logic, and we can hope that more states will follow our lead.

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