Free Tuition Not Best Use of Tax Money

Editorial from The Daily Gazette, 1/4/17

On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill, passed unanimously by both houses of the Legislature, that would have forced the state to uphold its constitutional obligation to pay for the legal defense of indigent criminal suspects.

On Tuesday, the governor introduced a plan to have the state provide free tuition at state colleges for students from families whose annual household income is $125,000 a year or less.

Apparently, the governor figures giving free college tuition to the upper middle class is an allowable expense for state taxpayers to bear, but providing legal assistance to the state's poorest citizens is too expensive.

Either way, neither is the right decision for New York state taxpayers.

Taxpayers in New York already provide 13 years of "free" education through our public school system. Is it now really the taxpayers' obligation to provide 17 years of free education by adding college tuition to their tax bills?

It's certainly true that people should have access to college, and economic means should not automatically exclude a student from attending college.

But the governor's proposal doesn't just provide assistance for low-income families. While a $125,000 annual household income isn't necessarily considered wealthy, it's not poor, either. If New York taxpayers are going to help families in need, the income threshold needs to be lower.

And while it's reasonable for taxpayers to provide some tuition assistance to income-limited students, is it right to ask taxpayers to pay the full cost of tuition for a two- or four-year degree?

About 900,000 students could be eligible for the program, and 200,000 could take advantage of it. At the current $6,500 tuition, that's a lot of free college for taxpayers to support.

Another point against free state tuition: Make college free and it loses its value. What incentive is there for someone to do well in college if the state is providing it for nothing? How many people will just take the free tuition as a way to fend off adulthood?

Also, where in the governor's proposal is any incentive for the state to rein in college spending and curb excesses so that tuition remains affordable?

From 2010-2015, SUNY tuition rose 30 percent, until the Legislature froze it last year. SUNY offi cials are now pitching annual tuition increases of up to $300 for the next four years and seeking an 11 percent increase in state aid.

As for college debt, why not help people pay for their own college educations by supporting more favorable interest rates and by making loan programs such as graduated repayment plans tied to income more readily available?

It might help the governor's popularity to give away college to upper-middle-class residents.

But is giving away college degrees over helping poor criminal defendants really the most appropriate use of taxpayer dollars?

We don't think so.