The Cost of “Free” Education in New York

The demand for free higher education, as implemented in European countries such as Germany and Norway, has remained a hot topic in America, particularly among Millennials who find their futures filled with student loan debt. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, similar to European politicians who helped engineer free tuition programs, ran for president last year on the premise that college is a right that all citizens should be afforded. This month, New York became the first state to implement Sanders’ premise on a large scale.

While some cities, such as San Francisco, have made community college free for their residents, New York is the first and only state in the country to make four-year public college free through the Excelsior Scholarship program, which was approved by the New York state legislature earlier this month. However, while this highly anticipated program will give free tuition to state university of New York (SUNY) students with family incomes of less than $125,000, it fails to cover other costs of college that financial aid might have helped with before. So, while this “free” college may be celebrated as the first of its kind implemented in the United States, it is still not a cure-all for the financial woes of American college students.

In order to receive the Excelsior Scholarship, a student must must be enrolled full-time and maintain a passing grade point average. After they graduate, they are required to live and work in the state of New York for the amount of time that they attended college. There’s no age limit for the scholarship, and experts estimate that roughly 80 percent of New York state’s families would be eligible. This is a far-reaching demographic that would appear to drastically help the majority of in-state families. In addition, it’s estimated that state universities would only have to raise their tuition by $200 in order to help pay for the initiative. This cost would be absorbed by those paying for tuition, whose upper-class families make more than $125,000 annually.

However, a closer investigation reveals that this new initiative only covers a small portion of the cost to attend a four-year college. These middle or lower class families that the new initiative aims to help would be saving $6,500 in tuition per year, but they would still have to foot the bill for the other necessary costs of college, such as room and board, books, and other living expenses. It’s worth noting that while there are various SUNY schools across the state, the most popular are in the New York city area, which is one of the most expensive places to live in the world. Other costs for college — including housing, transportation, food and books — rack up to approximately $18,500 a year. The new initiative displaces many other forms of financial aid that previously helped families pay these extra fees, making it harder for them to receive help in paying for what can be the largest bill in receiving a college education.

This new initiative was well-intentioned. I think it is a great start for states to implement tuition-free colleges for its residents. Also, by keeping these newly-educated people in the state after they graduate, New York is promoting better jobs and lifestyles that increase the well-being of the entire state. However, a more practical look at the true expenses of a higher education is needed. It is not enough to cover a couple thousand dollars of a process that can cost up to $25,000 in total per year. For education to truly be free, students should not have to go into any debt while putting themselves through college.

Claire Harvey is a second-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at cpharvey@uci.edu.