On April 12, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law the Excelsior Scholarship program to introduce free tuition at the state’s two- and four-year public colleges and universities for students whose families have annual incomes up to $125,000. The plan will be phased in over three years, beginning this fall. The governor’s office forecasts that more than 940,000 families and individuals across the state will be eligible for participation. Students must be enrolled full-time, averaging 30 credits per year.
The concept of free tuition at public colleges and universities is not new — the colleges within the City University of New York system had free tuition until the 1976 New York City fiscal crisis. But concerns over rising student debt brought the idea back to public discussion during the 2016 presidential race, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) made free tuition at public colleges and universities a campaign promise. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton belatedly echoed that idea in her campaign, but the idea seemed to evaporate with Donald Trump’s election. However, Sanders recently introduced the College for All Act (S.1373) with the hope of putting his campaign proposal into practice. Connecticut Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal joined Sanders in the introduction of this measure.
“We need to revolutionize the way we think about higher education and ensure colleges share responsibility for the success of their graduates,” said Murphy. “At the same time, we should make sure that cost is not a barrier to a college degree, just as it isn’t a barrier to a high school degree.”
“At a time when college remains out of reach for far too many, this legislation would make college tuition-free for working families, reduce student debt and breathe new life into the American Dream,” said Blumenthal.
To date, Gov. Dannel Malloy has not sought to bring free tuition in Connecticut’s public colleges and universities. Among regional business leaders, there is the hope that the governor remains unenthused about the idea.
“When I last checked, the state of Connecticut was facing a terribly challenging deficit for the next two years,” said Mickey Herbert, president and CEO of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council. “I can’t see piling on that deficit by offering college kids a free ride. The business community would not support a program like that in Connecticut.”
Jack Condlin, who is both president and CEO of the Stamford Chamber of Commerce and an adjunct professor of engineering at the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus, believed that the push for free tuition ignored the root of the problem. “The cost of education has skyrocketed,” he observed. “No one even seems to focus on that. What is increasing so much at the universities that makes it so expensive today?”
Peter Gioia, vice president and economist at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, commented that bringing free tuition to the state would signal a significant policy change. “Over the last 10 years, Connecticut increased tuition for all attendees, rather than cutting or giving free tuition,” he said. “But you have to ask: is it better to spend your money that way, or to spend it in other areas or to give it back to taxpayers?”
In the event Gov. Malloy followed Gov. Cuomo’s lead, the effort would not carry bipartisan support. “When the government starts paying for things, it becomes much more expensive,” said J.R. Romano, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party.
Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti, who recently announced his candidacy for the 2018 Republican gubernatorial nomination, put more blame on the educational institutions for passing along their rising administrative costs to students. “The only time that will change is when people stop writing out the checks,” he said.
However, the concept is not without its supporters. Paul Steinmetz, director of public affairs and community relations at Western Connecticut State University, compared the idea with the post-World War II changes brought to higher education through the G.I. Bill, which gave veterans the financial ability to pursue college degrees. “A lot of smart people got access to college who would not have otherwise,” he said. “As more students came in, there were more resources available — and more faculty if classes got too big.”
Nicholas Everdell, a former director of recruitment at Yale Law School and a consultant at Steinbrecher & Partners, a Westport-based firm that works with students preparing for college admissions, predicted the free tuition approach could benefit the academic environment. “This would create more diversity,” he said, noting that undergraduates would be able to consider continuing their studies in graduate school if they are not burdened by student loan debt. “The higher education law and business schools are already struggling with a student body that is not economically diverse.”