Why NY States Free Tuition Policy makes very little sense

I am saddled with thousands of debt from my college experience. While I’m fortunate enough to be able to make my payments consistently, I can definitely empathize with the thousands of students who struggle to make loan payments for degrees they thought would afford them financial security. That being said, giving people access to an education that has proven to be useless for so many might not be financially smart for the state and might lead to many people wasting time they could be using in the workforce. If we want a tuition assistance program to work, we need to view the program in regards to how it helps develop a collective good of educated citizens.

Often when public good programs like this exist, people talk about it in two manners. We have the bleeding heart liberals who claim just the “good” the program provides is enough of a reason for the program to exist. Then you have conservatives who are obsessed with restricting the program in the hopes of making a “Return on investment (ROI).” I believe these programs need to have an ROI, but the ROI isn’t what many conservatives or democrats think.

The reality is that these programs force us to ask difficult questions about what’s the purpose behind college. On a rudimentary level, colleges should be providing productive workers to fill up state work forces. Certain industries are pretty inelastic. We’ll always need teachers, doctors, etc. But others come and go in surges. The impetus behind college is providing students a broad foundation so they can easily navigate the career choices of today and possibly the future.

But is that what college provides? For some students sure. I frequently here about the successes of my friends from college. But for many students, college really just serves as a time suck that leaves them with very little marketable skills and a heaping pile of debt. By providing tuition assistance, we are fixing the heaping pile of debt, but we’re not ensuring that students are getting marketable skills. This is where the concept of an ROI comes in. For the state to get a good ROI on this tuition assistance they need to know that the students that graduate will have a positive economic impact on the NY economy.

If the purpose of the tuition assistance is to increase the number of productive workers in NYS, why not just pour resources into some of the SUNY’s themselves? While they are excellent institutions of learning, they don’t have as strong of a reputation as other Public University giants such as Berkeley or UNC. These schools have a reputation for producing great outcomes in their graduates. If a school like Binghamton could become as prestigious as a school like Berkeley, then high quality NYS students would be far more likely to stay. Capturing these elite students could prove to add more value than educating many students who might not prove to be productive.

One could argue the purpose behind the program is to educate the unskilled labor to fill in particular needs in the economy, but if that’s the case then a blanket tuition assistance program isn’t the answer. Instead NYS should have targeted assistance for programs that are linked to the industries that need workers. Programs for engineering, computer science, economics, etc. are always going to have high employment rates after the completion of the degree. Whereas someone pursuing an English degree should be encouraged to dual major in education because the degree itself won’t have much earning power alone (this is coming from an English major himself).

People argue that companies do not necessarily care what you major in and would prefer students to pursue their passions. Unfortunately the very same companies heavily recruit from the top 40 ranked Universities, making it difficult for students from lesser known universities to let their passions shine. Even for students at top Universities, jobs are not a guarantee. Expecting people to forage their way to financial security after college is not a given. While it is nice that you provided them an education, their educated status does very little for the economy.

There are some general benefits that come from a blanket tuition assistance. Artists and entrepreneurs, who would normally be dissuaded by debt, would now be more willing to take on risk after leaving college. Furthermore, I wouldn’t be shocked if a more educated citizen base would lead to less crime and other positive externalities. College, if anything, teaches you how to navigate bureaucracies, which for a social leaning state like NY could be useful. But both of these outcomes could be achieved more cheaply by targeting them specifically.

I do not have a hard suggestion on what should be done for tuition assistance. My brother who scored in the top percentile in the SATs and my sister who has a strong academic record are both ineligible for tuition assistance. This is simply because my father makes slightly more than the required amount (in a city whose cost of living is twice that of people in upstate). For this reason, both of them will graduate and gladly leave the state for greener pastures, while many of the graduates here will struggle to find jobs with degrees that provided them very few skills. The tuition assistance program needs to make up its mind. Is its goal to make the masses of NY marketable or is its goal to retain top talent from NY. Currently, it does neither particularly well