Even friends of “free” college have their doubts about Cuomo’s proposal

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One idea that should have washed away in last November’s electoral tempest is “free”—or, more accurately, “taxpayer funded”—college tuition. Candidate Hillary Clinton championed the cause during her campaign after Sen. Bernie Sanders, himself a storm of entitlement spending ideas such as this, left the race. Yet last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a proposal for taxpayers in his state to subsidize tuition for postsecondary students.

Cuomo’s proposal has provisions similar to Sanders’ and Clinton’s plans from last year: Resident college students from families earning $125,000 per year or less will be eligible for free tuition at in-state schools.

The New York Times called the idea an “exciting possibility.” The paper also says state universities already have “one of the lowest tuition rates in the nation” as though the policy has some remnant of fiscal responsibility.

In fact, cost estimates range from $138 million to $232 million per year. Analysts from New York City’s Independent Budget Office indicate these figures are too low, and even the Times observes that “costs for the state could rise as enrollment rises.” Indeed.

Notably, Robert Samuels, a supporter of taxpayer-subsidized tuition, says Cuomo’s proposal “will not accomplish its desired goals.” The low tuition rates that the Times cites do not include all the costs of attending college in New York. Once expenses such as housing, textbooks, and transportation are included, the costs of attending a school like the State University of New York go from $6,000 to nearly $25,000 per year.

Samuels also points out a fundamental economic principle that Cuomo’s plan overlooked: Free college will not control spiraling college tuition increases. Colleges can still choose to hire more administrators instead of teachers and build student center enhancements like simulated ice climbing walls. These expenses may attract prospective students but does little for their learning. As contributors to this blog have shown, public subsidies can drive costs up because schools know Uncle Sam will help when students need money.

President-elect Donald Trump’s administration and the new Congress should focus on proposals like expanding the uses of 529 college savings plans so families can do more with their own savings for a child’s future. Trump and and his nominee for U.S. Department of Education, Secretary Betsy DeVos, should work with federal and state lawmakers to make sure students have excellent K-12 opportunities so that students are better prepared for college and do not have to take out exorbitant loans when they struggle with coursework. Now those are ideas to keep alive in 2017 and beyond.

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