On Cuomo's College Tuition Plan

by / Apr. 18, 2017 4pm EST

Until last week’s budget deal, a New York State family with three college-bound teenagers would have expected to spend three times four times SUNY tuition of $6,470 for three four-year SUNY diplomas, or $77,640, in after-tax dollars over the next several years, just for tuition. They would also have expected to spend three times four times $10,000 or more, or at least $120,000, for dorms, food, books, and sundry fees, meaning that the overall cash price of college educations for three middle-class kids in this state would have been about $200,000.

That price just fell to $120,000. That’s what an American family would have to pay were it to send its kids to college in Germany, where tuition is free.

Now, because of the new New York State program of free SUNY tuition, that family will not have to spend money on plane tickets in order to get the kids a public-college education. Again, they’ll still have to spend the $10,000 or so per year per child on dorms, fees, books, etc., just as they would were those kids to decamp for Germany. 

As ever, one assumes that the students will themselves work for or borrow some if not all of that money, unless Mom and Dad and the grannies and gramps are sweeties. And the lucky families of SUNY grads will have the kids nearby, because part of the deal is that the kids will have to stick around in New York State for four years after graduation (which they have just four years to achieve), unless they want their free tuition to turn into un-free borrowed money.

Some liberals gripe that the New York “free tuition” plan is actually a handout to bankers because no kids graduate in four years, but hey—if one can work and/or borrow to fund living expenses, the price of a student’s SUNY education just dropped over $25,000 if that student is able to stay on task. 

So it would seem that the sensible public-policy goal of increasing the supply of human capital in New York State, by requiring SUNY-educated people to stick around and participate in the economy here, is achieved. (A little over 90 percent of SUNY grads today stay in New York, but that is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating to the great recession of 2008, which saw the end of massive internal US migration.) Incentivizing tuition-seekers to stick around here rather than decamping to Germany or any of the other countries that have long subsidized tuition seems a good goal, too. Incentivizing in-migration from tuition seekers also sounds good. Differentiating the way that the middle class is treated in New York from the way it’s treated in other states? That’s not such a bad message in the highly uneven competitive marketplace for the workforce, given the massive federal government subsidies to red states in all the forms detailed for years by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his annual Federal Fisc reports.

Cuomo and the New York Legislature said yes, in thunder, to all those business owners who for so long have so loudly demand educated workers. They and economists endlessly advocate for measurable increases in human capital. Nobody except bankers fail to criticize the explosion in household debt attributable to student-loan burdens—but because the tuition grant turns to a tuition loan should the student take five years rather than four to complete the bachelor’s degree, bankers are likely going to pick up some business.

So why the full-throated chorus of complaint from conservatives? Why the personalized rants against Andrew Cuomo, as if he alone, without the near-full agreement of the Republicans and Democrats of the New York State Assembly and Senate, were the one who imposed this radical Teutonic scheme on us free-market-loving Americans?

Who has the money for college

Something untoward has happened in this country that the critique of the New York State tuition plan has just revealed.

It is not 1983, when New York Times columnist and tuition-plan critic David Brooks graduated from the University of Chicago, which is a private university. A BA from Chicago is a high-prestige item conferred on high-achieving kids who would otherwise attend Harvard or another Ivy, or perhaps Duke, Georgetown, Northwestern, or a highly-selected college like Williams. The price of a degree from Chicago is four times about $60,000 a year for tuition, dorm, meals, books, and fees.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, though, many public universities—including UB, but most especially Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio State, Berkeley, Indiana, and some others—also conferred high-prestige degrees. Before the great resorting of institutions happened, there were many Nobel Prize winners on the faculties of public universities. There were top-rated academic departments at public universities.

But today, a Chicago BA is like an Ivy BA: It is a class differentiator. Any number of merely clever strivers get a Harvard law degree or a Chicago PhD, and happily pay the full freight for grad school on the promise of a big return on investment, financial in the case of the professional degree, prestige and pretty much guaranteed employment in the case of the doctorate.

That’s why the high-achieving middle-income household will still borrow insane levels in order to send the kid to a Chicago, a Princeton, a Johns Hopkins.

But let’s measure the price by what folks make.

That $60,000 is about $2,000 more than three quarters of income-earners in the eight-county region of Buffalo, New York reported as their gross income in the latest year for which we have final numbers.

In 2013, three-quarters of the people who filed income-tax returns in the eight counties of Western New York reported incomes below the New York State median income of $58,003. 

In Erie County, the largest Upstate county, with some of the highest-income New Yorkers outside Gotham City, the median income was $50,653. In Niagara County, the median income was $47,955. In Cattaraugus County, it was $42,603; in Allegany County, it was $42,445; and in Chautauqua County, it was $42,429.

What about the upper middle class, and the very well-off?

In Erie County, the richest county in Western New York, folks reporting more than $100,000 a year in income amounted to just under 50,000 of the 425,000 who filed income tax returns. Of those, there were 10,452 that reported incomes over $200,000. All told, the people reporting incomes over $100,000 (today’s cut-off point for eligibility for the free SUNY tuition) constituted under 12 percent of total filers, and their combined incomes amounted to half all reported income.

In Erie County, all the other people who filed tax returns, more than 375,000 of them, almost nine out of 10 people here, divided up the rest. That would be 375,000 taxpayers here, in Erie County, who might possibly have a kid who is eligible for the new New York State free tuition plan. Not the “free college” plan, because there is no plan that foots the bill for dorms, food, books, fees, etc.

But let’s focus on the bottom 75 percent and the $60,000 figure for a year at David Brooks’s alma mater. For 318,000 of the 425,000 taxpayers here, the cost of a year at a private university exceeds total reported income. For a year.

It’s even beyond the debt capacity of a middle-income family to saddle itself with $200,000 or more in college loans—not for the three kids, but just for the one.

Tiny bubbles

The prestige thing is at work here. And so is the disconnect. People in the elite ranks of American institutions simply do not share much in the way of the income and expenditure experiences of most Americans. The gap is not between a middle-income household (under $58,000 a year in New York State, or here in the Buffalo area, under $51,000) and a millionaire household. In the big cities, where incomes are higher, even for newspaper columnists, just the top five percent average about 10 times the median income of a Buffalo-area resident.

David Brooks’s critique, and the critique of folks in the Manhattan Institute and elsewhere in the conservative press, reveals that there is a significant gap in understanding just how much less actual money most people have compared to high-income folks.

A look at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology living wage calculator reveals that a family with three kids in Erie County, New York will spend around $60,000 a year, and not extravagantly—just about $1,000 a month on housing, $1,000 a month on food, $500 a month on health insurance, etc. Add in childcare (or non-public schooling) and the price shoots up.

The elite chattering classes evidently have no idea.

How the money compares around here

The top 2.4 percent of folks in Erie County reported earnings over $200,000. Around here, $200,000 is a lot of coin. In New York, Chicago, Washington, Boston, LA, Seattle, and a few other places, that figure isn’t so impressive. Membership in the top one percent of incomes in New York these days starts at $600,000. Around here, membership in the top one percent starts at around $300,000.

But the real story here is in how much less money everybody else has—with more than 75 percent reporting annual incomes under $60,000—and how paying for a college education, any college education, has widened the gap between high-income households and even high-moderate households.

Make no mistake: The new tuition-free SUNY plan is for the middle class.

Most college students from low- and moderate-income households are already eligible for the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). At Buffalo State College, over 85 percent of the students already receive full TAP, so the Cuomo initiative is no incentive for them. 

But the “conservative” critique of Cuomo’s plan makes two strange arguments about these low-income students. 

First, Brooks and others argue that free tuition will create a rush of students from higher-income households, a rush that will displace low-income students, crowding them out of the only educational opportunity they’re ever likely to have. This talking point ignores the current phenomenon of enrollment collapse at all colleges all around the USA due to what Northwestern University economist calls the “demographic headwind” that is upon us. Just in the past year, the enrollment drop at Buffalo State College, for example, is over 10 percent; at Fredonia State, it is over 20 percent. No institution is turning students away. None is likely to.

The second “conservative” critique is that Cuomo’s plan won’t touch students’ real problem, which is the cost of a dorm room, books, and fees, to which one can only say: Well? Which is it? Are conservatives arguing that low- and middle-income kids should pay nothing to go to college? But if that’s the case, then why are conservatives arguing against free tuition?

And what about the requirement that there be a quid pro quo? The gripers gripe that it’s unjust to require that a state government restrict the free tuition plan to residents and then require those residents to reside within the state after they get the free tuition.

Ahem. One should not expect New York State taxpayers to foot the bill for footloose tuition mendicants from states that do not foot the tuition bill for their own residents. We are not Germany, which will foot the tuition bill even for Americans. We are certainly not Denmark, which will not only foot your tuition bill but will also give your scholar a monthly stipend. (Pesky, though, that Danish-language requirement. Or you could go to Finland, and learn in Finnish.)

The gripe seems to be centered on the identity crisis of the upper middle class, and specifically on the problem that the near-rich have with the post-1980s reality, which is that even professional-class incomes are not able to sustain middle-class consumption.

Worse, even professional-class incomes are not able to afford the price of high-prestige undergraduate education.

Only very high-income households can afford high-prestige undergraduate education. The rest of us have to cope either with massive student debt or get our schooling in state schools—which have now just become more reachable.

Middle-class blues

Americans are having a hard time digesting the restructuring of the economy since that long period, roughly 1945 to 1985, during which incomes for most households went up and up and up. As Emmanuel Saez of Berkeley, Thomas Piketty of the Sorbonne, and anybody with access to IRS data have all shown, the US economy after the onset of globalization is an economy that has left 10 percent of the population with over half of total income, where before the top 10 percent had only about a third.

That change has made lots of middle-income households angry, depressed, and debt-ridden, defeating the expectations of many, and tending to drive political thinking toward what used to be the margins. That’s precisely what’s playing out in France this month, with the surging electoral fortunes of right-wing populist Marine LePen being met by the surging popularity of the unapologetic leftist Jean-Luc Melanchon, crowding out the mainstream conservative, the centrist, and the candidate of the center-left socialist party, whose leader currently occupies the presidency. It’s far away, but it’s awfully familiar.

The good news for New Yorkers is that there is now a baseline commitment, on a bipartisan basis, to a policy of access to university-level education at a time when middle-class stress is high and growing.

The other good news for New Yorkers is that there’s a widespread understanding among elected officials here that the so-called “moral hazard” problem has been addressed, which in this case means that the beneficiaries of a program tend not to respect it unless there’s a price tag—because there’s a price tag. Either students work their butts off taking 15 credits and graduating in four years or the free tuition turns into a nasty loan that they will have to pay back.

But the middle class is still going to have to tolerate elite opinion-leaders trashing the notion that the great social equalization measures of the 1940s through the 1980s, in the era before globalization and privatization thwarted general American uplift, were bad and shouldn’t be reborn in current public policy.

One expects that we’ll keep hearing that, and not believing it, but that we’ll shut up about it and accept the new rules if what we get is a halving of the price of a college education. 

One also expects that pretty soon, should anybody in elected office be bold enough to offer a Medicare for all healthcare plan, we’ll hear the same kind of “conservative” ranting—and watch New York’s governor and legislature do a bipartisan deal on that, too.

Bruce Fisher teaches at SUNY Buffalo State.