Free College?

Posted on in Todd Talks by Todd Johnson

Recently, New York State passed legislation that would make two and four-year college tuition free. My first thoughts were, "It sounds like this story should be followed with a huge asterisk", and, as I dug deeper into the fine print associated with the legislation, I found that to be true.

The Excelsior Scholarship, as it's called, is part of the state budget and only covers in-state full-time students in the state's public university system (SUNY), which comprises 64 schools with an enrollment of about 1.3 million students. Furthermore, the students' family income cannot surpass $100,000 a year this year (this will gradually increase to $125,000 in three years). The scholarship's estimated cost is around $163 million per year, but some have said that the actual cost could be much higher.

So, how about those asterisks I mentioned that I read about? Well, for starters, because the bill is known as a "last-dollar" program, this means students are required to first apply for funding elsewhere, like federal Pell Grants, before applying for the scholarship. In turn, the students at the higher end of the income cap are probably going to benefit the most from the program, since their families may make too much to qualify for those grants. The scholarship will not cover: books, fees, food or housing. These costs are about half (or more) of the costs to attend college. The fine print also states the following conditions:

Students are required to take at least 30 credits / year
You must attend full time and graduate on time
It's only good for two-year and four-year programs
You must work in-state after you graduate for the same time period as your schooling. So, an associate's degree holder will have to stay and work in NY for two years, and a bachelor's degree holder will need to stay four years, or the "grant" becomes a retroactive loan.
This is hardly a new idea. In fact, it was a huge story during the election season. Tennessee, Oregon and about 83 other states and municipalities have already passed similar legislation here in the United States. Other countries, like Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Germany (even for international students), already offer higher education free of charge. In France, students studying for a bachelor's degree pay, on average, about $212 annually.

The cost of attending college has skyrocketed in recent years, making the price of continuing education prohibitive for a large number of prospective students. This law is a sight for sore wallets in New York, but, remember this: President Trump's budget proposal withholds funding from the federal grants mentioned above, so only time will tell how well this experiment turns out.