By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
A banner with the strange device, Excelsior! –Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Excelsior,” a latin word meaning “Higher!” or “Ever upward!” is the state motto of New York. It’s also the name of Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new “tuition-free” college plan, where it sits comfortably with the names of other aspirational educational programs, like “Race to the Top.” It’s also the title of a poem (parodied by Rocky and Bullwinkle) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, about a youthful traveller, climbing a mountain in the gathering darkness after an old man, a maiden, and a peasant attempt to dissuade him. They find the traveller at daybreak:
A traveller, by the faithful hound
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
That banner with the strange device,
(Excelsior was, apparently, the Into Thin Air of its day.) It’s hard to imagine that for Cuomo, “Ever upward!” means anything other than “Ever upward to the Presidency in 2020!”, though naturally one would not wish the traveller’s fate on him. “Cuomo 2020? NY budget boosts talk”:
Hillary Clinton said this about Cuomo as she touted his free SUNY tuition plan: “This is exactly the image that progressive leadership believes in and delivers on.”
The comments came just days after Cuomo made good on several top priorities in the state budget and added to growing speculation that the Democratic governor is eyeing a presidential run in 2020.
The free SUNY tuition plan, in particular, garnered national headlines that boosted Cuomo’s profile. Not only did he appear with Clinton in Queens to do a ceremonial bill signing, he first launched the proposal in January with Bernie Sanders, who battled Clinton for the presidential nomination in 2016.
The sequence Sanders-Clinton — as opposed to the sequence Clinton-Sanders — certainly shows which side of the party bread Cuomo believes the butter is on, doesn’t it? Still, it’s nice to be pandered to, however ineptly!
So with the partisan context out of the way, I’ll first look briefly at the framing of the Cuomo plan. Then I’ll look at the fine print. (Let me stress that I’m in no way an expert on public policy for college finance or college debt; this is simply an aggregation of takes by those more expert than I am. I hope any readers going through this process — or with children going through it — will add their comments.)
Here’s what Governor Andrew Cuomo has to say:
“You want to talk about a difference government can make? This is the difference that government can make,” Cuomo said at a budget briefing Friday. “There is and say ‘I have great dreams, but I don’t believe I’ll be able to get a college education because mommy and daddy can’t afford it.’ Every child will have the opportunity that education provides.”
“It says, — you can be a success,” he said, according to a transcript of the appearance circulated by his office. “It doesn’t matter if Mom and Dad can’t pay for college. It says to parents, ‘Don’t worry about paying for college. Don’t worry about choosing between paying rent and paying for college education. The state will invest in your child because that’s an investment in the state.'”
And here’s what Ex-Senator Hillary Clinton has to say:
“I believe in New York and America deserves the chance to go as their hard work, their skills, education will take them,” she said. “What we need to be doing is throwing open the doors for everyone willing to work and achieve their education.
Needless to say, neither of these statements –“every child,” and “every single child” — are true, as we’ll see when we look at the fine print. (To be fair, Clinton, cannier than Cuomo says what she believes shoud come to pass, as opposed to promising it will). Sanders is more measured:
Real progress appears to be taking place in New York State. Let's keep the pressure on. https://t.co/utDUMxRgEj
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) April 9, 2017
In other words, better, but not good enough. However, I would rather have the Overton Window dragged left than not, on the assumption that an Overton Window in motion tends to stay in motion. Sanders again:
“Here’s my prediction,” the Vermont independent said in a speech promoting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to provide free college tuition to middle-class families. “If New York state does it this year, mark my words, state after state will follow.”
Let’s just hope their bills are better than New York’s (and that ultimately, there’s a Federal bill. Why not?)
The Fine Print
Interestingly, coverage of Cuomo’s plan was by no means uncritical, suggesting that he may not get the tailwind for 2020 that he expects. (For early negative reactions, see here and here.) From my perspective, Cuomo’s plan has one critical flaw:
Cuomo’s “Tuition-Free College” Plan is not a universal benefit
That is, Excelsior is not a left program providing universal concrete material benefits to everyone, especially the working class. So it’s not a program from the left. Rather, it’s a typical liberal program, directed only at the “deserving,” hedged about with complexity, and targeting the (so-called) middle class, and not the working class. More specifically, Cuomo’s plan:
- Is means-tested
- Does not cover fees
- Covers full-time students only
- Has a residency requirement
- Has clawbacks
- Has a “crapshoot” clause
Let’s consider each of these points in turn.
Cuomo’s Plan Is Means-Tested
The plan crafted by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo will apply to any New York student whose family has an annual income of $125,000 or less.
I strongly believe that universal benefits — certainly Cuomo’s plan is presented as a universal benefit to society — should not be means-tested. Clinton’s focus-grouped talking point that she doesn’t want to pay tp send Donald Trump’s kids to college aside, a right is a right: If people have the right to a college education, as Cuomo’s heartwarming rhetoric about sleeping children implies, then the right should apply regardless of income, like all other rights. Second, if the program is truly universal, that means the rich have a stake in it (however small). That’s one of the things that’s helped protect Canadian single payer; the rich use it too. Third, means-testing and gatekeeping generally are in essence a jobs guarantee for the professional class, and one can’t help but think that’s a key consideration for the Democrat establishment, since that’s their base. (Which is fine, I’m for a jobs guarantee, but only as a universal benefit, and not as an example of pork.)
Cuomo’s Plan Does Not Cover Fees
Like it says in the tin, Cuomo’s plan covers tuition only. It does not cover fees, room and board, textbooks, etc. ABC:
Other experts have noted that the New York program covers only tuition, with no additional money for other college fees such as room and board and books, which can be substantial. Over the course of four years at a State University of New York college, tuition would make up only about $26,000 of the total $83,000 tab.
$83,000 – $26,000 = $57,000?! That’s a lot of money! Worse, the state legislature (or Cuomo) can game the budgeting process through fee hikes:
Since the scholarship only covers tuition, the state may pressure colleges to increase fees in an effort to reduce program costs. This happened in Massachusetts for years and still happens in Georgia, both states with large merit-based grant aid programs. Over time, it is quite possible that the value of the grant fails to keep up with inflation as a result—particularly if the state shifts funding from appropriations to student aid and colleges scramble for another revenue source.
Cuomo’s Plan Covers Full-Time Students Only
AM New York quotes John Aderounmu, 20, a junior at Hunter College and member of the Campaign to Make CUNY Free Again:
Cuomo claims that more than 940,000 middle class families and individuals will qualify for free tuition, but Aderounmu said that “very few students are eligible” for the Excelsior Scholarship. Why? Recipients must take a course load of at least five courses and there is no provision for living expenses. Most low income students have to work while attending college and can’t afford to take such a heavy course load.
Cuomo’s Plan Has Clawbacks for Those Who Leave the State
The biggest complaints [about Cuomp’s plan] have focused on the pointless and parochial requirement that students stay in New York state after graduation for as many years as they received the Excelsior funding. Otherwise, their grants will turn into loans. (There will be deferments for graduate school and “extreme hardship.”)
I understand the political argument: “Why should the state of New York pay for a student who, when they graduate, moves to Colorado?” Leaving aside the idea of these United States, this is an argument for a Federal program. Fortune explains why this is a bad idea:
This is a big problem for several reasons. First, the ability to compete in the national labor market is a key reason that a college degree offers such a large financial return. This requirement puts a significant handicap on the job prospects of middle-class students at a critical point in their careers.
Second, it can encourage undesirable behavior, such as incentivizing an unemployed recent graduate to stay in New York and consume safety net services rather than taking an entry-level job in another state. A $30,000 tax is a powerful reason not to move. This could even lead to New York employers offering slightly lower salaries to in-state grads, since they’ll know this group has fewer out-of-state options.
Third, students who move out of state would actually be worse off for having participated in the free college program, because the loan they receive will not have the same benefits and protections that come with federal student loans (which they would have taken out in the absence of this plan). The most significant protection missing would be income-based repayment, which ties loan payments to how much someone makes.
Here’s a splendid worst case scenario:
[T]o be clear, they are not simply agreeing to live in New York for up to five years after graduation. They are also agreeing to work in New York. So a graduate who lives in Chatham and four years later gets a summer job in Pittsfield could suddenly face a student loan burden of up to $27,500.
Cuomo’s Plan Has Clawbacks for Those Who Don’t Finish 15 Credits a Semester
Inside Higher Education explains a second onerous clawback in Cuomo’s plan:
The governor’s office has cast the Excelsior Scholarship’s 30-credit-per-year requirement as a component that will ensure students complete college on time. …[M]any wonder how the 30-credit requirement will affect low-income students who may need to work summers to pay for rent or college fees — expenses that the Excelsior Scholarship program does not cover. They say the benefits of free tuition need to be available to part-time students. And they wonder if students will drift toward easier programs in order to ensure that they will meet the academic standards necessary to keep their free tuition.
What is becoming clear is what will happen to Excelsior Scholarship students who fail to complete 30 credits in a year. The legislation that authorized the Excelsior Scholarship says that such a student is only eligible to receive their award for the first semester of that year.
So the student becomes ineligible for the second semester of the year. Colleges and universities will be responsible for charging such students.
The program has also generated discussion around a requirement that students complete 30 credits per year to remain eligible. And the 30-credit requirement comes with another caveat that has been previously overlooked: students who don’t complete 30 credits in a year could have some of their Excelsior Scholarship clawed back. They’ll still be eligible for the first semester of free tuition in the year in which they failed to complete 30 credits. But after that year is over, they could receive a bill from their college or university asking them to pay for their second semester, unless a hardship is declared.
So, kick ’em on the way down (unless they undergo a test from a professional gatekeeper for being “deserving”).
Cuomo’s Plan Has A “Crapshoot” Clause
Another lovely scenario:
The budget has a provision that allows awards to be cut or allocated via lottery if funds run short, which is a distinct possibility if the state faces another recession. Needless to say, this would be a PR nightmare for the state.
And, equally needless to say — at least one would think so — a nightmare for the students making their decisions about which college to attend! AM New York once more:
The legislation “allows each college to determine the GPA required to stay in the program,” and if more people qualify than there are slots available, awards will be decided “through a lottery or other mechanism to be decided by college presidents,” said Erik Forman, an organizer for the Make CUNY Free Again campaign. “They might as well say ‘while supplies last,'” scoffed Forman.
It looks to me like this lead from AP summarizes Cuomo’s plan quite well:
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York is set to make tuition at public colleges and universities .
With all the complexities and hoops to jump through, plus the 30-credit requirement, plus the failure to cover fees, Cuomo’s plan doesn’t look so working class-friendly, does it? So let’s contrast Cuomo’s plan to Sanders’ plan:
Earlier this month, Sanders introduced the College for All Act, which would eliminate tuition and fees at all four-year public colleges and universities, for students and families making less than $125,000. Community colleges would be tuition and fee-free for all.
At least Sanders covers the fees! (And since his program is Federal, Cuomo’s bizarre residency requirement goes away, as well as the presumed necessity for the “crapshoot”). Again, Sanders has a sober assessment:
Real progress appears to be taking place in New York State. Let’s keep the pressure on.
“Let’s keep the pressure on.” Exactly.
 See sense 1; Excelsior™seems to have been the bubble-wrap of its day.
 Clinton would never, ever do that, in fact could not. Federal taxes don’t “pay for” Federal spending.
 Or possibly I should say “lard,” since pork goes by district, whereas good jobs at good wages doing means testing are “spread around.”