When Gov. Andrew Cuomo this month proposed making education at state universities tuition-free for students whose families earn $125,000 or less, the plan got a positive response from both sides of the aisle.
Many Democrats applauded, while Republicans offered a degree of support for the project. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had pushed for free tuition at all state colleges during his presidential campaign, endorsed the project (and boosted Cuomo’s potential 2020 presidential bid) by appearing next to the governor when he announced the plan at LaGuardia Community College on Jan. 3.
A spokesman for the Republican majority on New York’s state Senate said Republicans have long supported lowering the costs of college education for middle-class families.
“While we will have to review the specifics when the governor releases his Executive Budget, this proposal appears to move us in a positive direction,” spokesman Scott Reif was quoted by The Associated Press as saying.
It is hard to dislike a plan that offers a greater number of young people a chance to receive debt-free college education. Yet hard as it might be, some managed.
Cuomo and his allies are “basically just taking a world where tuition already is free for low-income kids and doing nothing more for those low-income kids -- and instead plowing millions of dollars into children from more affluent families,” Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, told Insidehighered.com, an online publication focusing on college topics.
“The change in expenditure is regressive,” Chingos was quoted as saying.
The Washington Post, which published an article by Chingos on Jan. 4 arguing the same point, took the matter a step further, saying in a Jan. 9 editorial that “Cuomo’s free-tuition plan isn’t progressive.”
Since when has providing tuition help to hardworking, but not impoverished, families become regressive? Since when has “progress” come to imply expanding educational help only to the poorest, while denying the same progressive measures to everybody else?
The critics’ issue with Cuomo’s proposal is not that it would take away any of the benefits the neediest students are currently receiving. It would not. Their issue is that the proposal would offer some benefits to students whose families—gasp—are not exactly steeped in poverty.
Those supposedly more affluent families to whom critics of Cuomo’s are loath to offer free college tuition include the families of school teachers, police officers, computer technicians, bookkeepers, store clerks—hardly a pack of Wall Street wolves.
Cuomo’s proposal, according to his figures, could benefit a majority of families with college-age kids in New York State, where $125,000 is well above the median income. But that, according to some of the plan’s critics, is verboten.
If there is budget money to spare, critics argue, that money should be given to the poorest of New York’s students. Never mind that in the process, the children of a school teacher would graduate college deeply in debt.
Some of the self-proclaimed progressives seem to have a morbid dread of spending budget money on helping those children. Perish the thought, according to Cuomo’s critics, that the daughter of a bookkeeper would graduate college without thousands of dollars in debt, or that a state with one of the highest GDPs in the nation with the highest GDP in the world would—horror of horrors—dare to offer tuition-free college education to all of its residents.
The move to expand tuition-free education at public colleges to middle-class families is long overdue. New York should make it happen, and should also take it a step further and provide tuition-free education at state colleges to all residents—something that Sanders advocated. Anything short of that is an embarrassment to one of the wealthiest areas of the world.