No, David Brooks, Cuomo’s College Plan Is Not A “Fiasco”


David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new free public education plan a “fiasco.” He even went so far as to call it worse than anything Donald Trump has passed so far. Setting that ludicrous latter claim to the side, let’s examine Brooks’ argument.

(Disclaimer: My claim here isn’t that Cuomo’s plan is great; I leave that determination to education policy experts. Rather, it’s that Brooks’ arguments don’t hold water. If you’re going to criticize the education plan, go for it – but please, be smart about it.)

Brooks says that while free public education sounds good on its face, in reality, it “will hurt actual New Yorkers.” Here’s why he thinks Cuomo’s plan sucks:

First, the law is regressive. It does nothing to help students from families earning less than $50,000 a year. Their tuition is already covered by other programs. But it does pay for tuition for New Yorkers who make double the state’s median income. The higher up the income scale you go, until the ceiling, the more you benefit.

Is it possible that Brooks doesn’t know what a regressive policy is? This program is funded by an 8.82 percent state tax on New Yorkers making more than $1 million a year. This is the definition of a progressive policy: wealthy New Yorkers funding public education for students from low- and middle-income families.

Brooks is ostensibly angry that students from families making less than $50K a year are left out of this plan. But that’s because the lowest-income students already get free tuition from Pell Grants and other tuition assistance programs. Would Brooks have preferred that the policy give free tuition 2x over to these students?

Long story short: this is a silly argument. This policy isn’t regressive; it’s making sure that low-income and middle-class kids not covered by existing programs can also benefit from a free public education.

Second, it doesn’t make a dent in reducing the non-tuition fees, like living expenses, textbooks and travel, which for many students are far more onerous than tuition.

This is right. It’s unfortunate that Cuomo’s college plan doesn’t cover these things. Doesn’t make it a “fiasco,” though.

Third, it doesn’t cover students who don’t go to school full time and don’t complete in four years. In 2017 this is the vast, vast majority of all students, especially poorer students.

Brooks is assuming that past trends will continue. But why would they? This policy addresses the very reason why many students go to school only part-time and therefore take longer to graduate: cost. If you need to work a part-time job to pay for your college expenses, you’re going to have a hard time graduating in 4 years. This policy will enable students to finish college faster.

Fourth, it demotivates students. Research has shown that students who have to work to pay some college costs, even if only small expenses, are more spurred to work hard and graduate. As Northwestern researcher Chenny Ng put it in a Washington Post essay, “as the cost of attending college drops to zero, so does the perceived cost of dropping out.”

But the cost isn’t dropping to zero. As Brooks just said, the program doesn’t pay for non-tuition costs. Students will still have skin in the game.

Fifth, Cuomo’s law threatens to destroy some of New York’s private colleges. Cuomo could have championed a Pell-like program that subsidizes attendance at any accredited school. Instead, he pays for tuition only at state schools.

This means that suddenly the state’s 150 private colleges have to compete with “free.” Many of these schools are already struggling to survive. If upper-middle-class students are drawn away to public colleges, private ones may close. That hurts the state’s educational diversity, it destroys jobs and it hurts the state.

These private colleges tend to have smaller classes, they tend to do a better job of graduating their students and they tend to spend heavily to subsidize poorer students.

150 private colleges have to compete with “free”? Good. That’s the whole point of state-run colleges: to provide affordable educational opportunities for state residents. If a private school wants to exist in that environment, it needs to provide such a stellar academic environment that students are willing to pay a premium to attend. That’s always been the dynamic of our education system. It’s why Stanford and Harvard continue to exist alongside UC Berkeley and the University of Virginia. And it’s why Columbia will continue to exist alongside SUNY.

Sixth, the law may widen the gap between rich and poor. When state schools are “free,” more people will apply. As more apply, selectivity will increase, as administrators chase higher U.S. News & World Report rankings. That will exclude students with lower credentials, who tend to be from more disadvantaged homes. Even Georgia’s successful Hope Scholarship program had this unintended consequence, widening the college attendance gap between white and black and rich and poor.

This argument assumes that talented students are not currently applying to college, presumably because they can’t afford it. Once they get free tuition, they’ll be able to apply, and they’ll take the spot of student with worse academic records. And this is… a bad thing?

Look – I understand the concern. Students with “lower credentials,” as Brooks puts it, tend to be from lower-income homes, and with more competition at public schools, they’ll be the ones most likely to lose a spot on campus. But the solution cannot be to keep prices so high that better-qualified students don’t apply. That’s just silly. Rather, let’s lower the cost of school and invest in our kids early on so they can do well in elementary, middle, and high school, setting them up for a successful college experience.

Seventh, over the long term the law could hurt the quality of New York’s state system. Right now those schools rely on tuition to help fund programs. If New York moves more toward a purely publicly funded model, it may suffer from the slow decay that has hurt many state systems. State budgets are perpetually challenged by rising entitlement spending. Education gets squeezed. The universities will try to claw back the private money with dorm fees, activities fees and other charges that don’t officially count as tuition, but still quality suffers.

Even in Germany, where a generous welfare state is valued, per-pupil spending has dropped by 10 percent since universities became free. Germany is an extremely successful country, but lecture classes are huge and the country’s universities are not generally ranked among the world’s best.

Speculation plus one anecdote does not a good argument make.

Finally, the law will hurt its recipients’ future earnings. Students who receive free tuition for four years have to remain in New York State for four years after graduating, or pay the money back. This means they won’t be able to seize out-of-state opportunities during the crucial years when their career track is being formed. They’ll be trapped in a state with one really expensive city, and other regions where good jobs are scarce.

In policy analysis, we frequently ask the question, “Compared to what?” Brooks says this law will hurt recipients’ future earnings – but compared to what? Compared to the status quo, this policy will let the 80-90% of New York state school graduates who remain in the state to keep their earnings rather than using them to pay off student loans. And the remaining 10-20% of students who want to leave the state post-graduation will have their tuition converted to a loan; that is, they’ll have to pay it off, just like they would have had to do without the free tuition plan.

I suspect, however, that Brooks is comparing the new plan to a version in his mind: the version that does not require students to stay in New York. In that case, he should reword his argument: “Finally, the law will hurt its recipients’ future earnings, compared to a similar plan that would let student move out-of-state after graduation.” That may be true; it may be not. It’s all speculation. Regardless, it doesn’t make Cuomo’s plan a “fiasco.”


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