Robert Moore
Senior Consultant, CEO Emeritus

Something For Nothing

The impact of tuition-free public colleges and universities

The unicorn of free college has again been sighted—this time in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal for eliminating tuition at all public colleges and universities for state residents with family income of less than $125,000 per year.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m all in favor of lowering the cost of college, making it affordable for middle class families, and otherwise reducing the student debt burden. But at what cost?

There are more than 130 private colleges and universities in New York, and if the Governor’s proposal takes place, fully half of them will be out of business or on life support before the class entering in Fall 2017 can graduate. Extreme? Maybe. But consider this: for schools like Columbia and NYU, there won’t be any appreciable difference based on the Governor’s plan. They will just get to be even more elite than they are now—becoming firmly entrenched as a bastion of upper-middle-class privilege because a whole lot of folks won’t want to pay their price when there’s a “free” alternative.

But how about all those schools that aren’t national brands, that rely on New York residents to fill their classes every year, that are already discounting tuition by 45% or more? For the majority of them, the competition has always been the regional public institutions, and those institutions just slashed the cost of attendance to a point where the private college or university simply can’t compete. Put yourself in the shoes of a family making around $100,000 per year with a couple of college-age kids. Ask yourself: should we send Charley or Clarisse to SUNY New Paltz for free, or Marist at $33,250 or Mount Saint Mary at $27,233 or the College of Saint Rose at $29,656? Even after a healthy discount, the family math is pretty easy to do, and does not bode well for the private institutions that will have to compete with a free public alternative.

So what’s the Governor to do? The answer is simple, if costly: expand the free tuition program beyond the public institutions so that they are not “privileged” over the private institutions. Attach the subsidy to the student, rather than to the institution, and let parents and students choose which college or university is the best fit for them in terms of curricula, size, values, temperament, and other factors—regardless of whether they are public or private. That’s a true leveling of the field.