As the first state in the nation to reach a deal that will make the tuition of its public colleges free, New York has been hailed as a pioneer of affordable higher education. The only restrictions to the grant program are that students must be residents of New York with a household income of less than $125,000 a year. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is rumored to be preparing for an upcoming presidential bid in 2020, proposed the measure in January, which he has since dubbed the “Excelsior Scholarship.”
Upon its release last weekend, the bill was highly praised by leading Democrats in New York, most notably Hillary Clinton, who made appearances at community colleges and tweeted “Let’s celebrate New York State getting something important done that we wanted to do nationally. A great step for progressives” after news of the bill broke.
Ironically, free tuition was a cornerstone of Bernie Sanders’s campaign, and while Clinton called for more affordable higher education, it was Sanders who proposed completely free tuition. When Sanders first rolled out his plan during the primaries, Clinton smugly criticized the proposal during a speech at SUNY Purchase in April 2016, claiming, “you read that fine print and it basically says, ‘yeah, it’ll be free if the governors of America put in about $28 billion’.” She added, laughing along with her audience, “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It doesn’t add up, my friends.”
When Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination, her stance changed drastically. Sanders created a fervent and loyal fanbase, which pulled Clinton further left and pressured her to adopt more radical ideology. In July, Clinton announced her support for the elimination of tuition at all in-state public colleges and universities for any student with an income level below $125,000, directly contradicting the remarks she had made months earlier.
Today, a little under a year after Sanders announced his free tuition plan, the Sanders-esque Excelsior plan has been rolled out in New York. So can Sanders liberals finally say “I told you so” to Clinton supporters, who were highly dismissive of free tuition? To some extent, Excelsior does legitimize Bernie’s radical philosophy. However, there are holes in the program showing that moderate Democrats’ skepticism remains valid.
Critics have identified several major flaws within the Excelsior plan. To qualify for the scholarship, students must attend school full time and graduate within two to four years. This will inevitably present a challenge to the students targeted by the program, those who often have to interrupt their studies to work and are less likely to take a traditional path to earning their degree. Currently, less than ten percent of students enrolled in the state’s community colleges and less than forty percent of students enrolled in the state’s public four-year colleges graduate within the allotted amount of time.
Another criticism of the program is that it only covers tuition. In New York, tuition is already among the lowest in the country and can be covered by Pell Grants or state aid. Costs such as living expenses and textbooks, which are often higher than the cost of tuition, are not covered. At SUNY Binghamton, the third largest public university in New York, tuition costs $6,470 while housing costs over $14,000.
However, the best criticism of Excelsior is that students, after graduating, are forced to remain in New York for as many years as they received funding. If a student decides to move out of the state before the required post-graduation term, then the grant turns into a loan and becomes student debt. Whether this provision is necessary is unclear, as New York has a robust young population and a highly competitive job market. In fact, it seems like this requirement could eventually increase unemployment rates.
These criticisms lead to the general conclusion that, while Excelsior will cut the cost of tuition for a small percentage of mostly middle class students, the process of obtaining a college education will remain a burden. According to Sanders, demystifying the American higher education system in order to increase accessibility is largely the goal of his tuition-free plan.
Despite this variation from his original plan, Sanders has applauded New York for its action. “Today, what Governor Cuomo is proposing is a revolutionary idea for higher education,” said Sanders at a January press conference, when the plan was first proposed. “And it’s an idea that is going to reverberate not only throughout the state of New York, but throughout this country.”
The inclusion of free tuition in the agenda of mainstream Democrats is indicative of the recent failure of establishment Democrats, such as Clinton, to engage working class voters, a demographic that Donald Trump attracted through populist appeals in the last election. During the primaries last year, Clinton said that Sanders supporters were young people who “live in their parents basements.” Recently, Clinton has admitted that one of the major downfalls of her campaign was failing to appeal to the working class; condescending comments such as this one reveal the depth of her miscalculation. In order for the Democratic party to return to power on its platform of representing all Americans, it must create a coalition in a new electorate that includes the large group of young voters that Sanders was able to reach.