Is Free College Really “Free”? New N.Y. Offer Could Be Risky for Students


Private colleges in New York are worried. They should be.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s newly passed legislation — offering free tuition at state universities and community colleges to students in families making up to $125,000 a year — is going to put a lot of private schools out of business.

I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

Private colleges without a clear religious mission or incredibly upscale club branding absorb a lot of money for some very limited returns to the students who incur the debt. And such colleges are free to discriminate against conservative ideas and speakers if they choose. Crowding more students into public universities means more students protected by the First Amendment, at least in theory.

That may be unintended consequence #1 of this proposal. But there are others. Let’s play it out in our heads.

Unintended consequence #2: Families may stay in New York, or move there, attracted by this promise of free college for their kids. This would be good for New York’s economy, assuming these are families with jobs.

Unintended consequence #3: Families may limit earnings to stay under the $125,000 mark. Families on welfare who have aspirations for their kids may move to New York, an already generous welfare state.

Unintended consequence #4, a result of perhaps the worst provision of the new law which was added at the last moment by upstate Republicans worried about brain drain: If you leave New York within four years of graduation, you suddenly owe the government a huge bundle of money.

In the 1980s, Tama Jamowitz wrote a famed short story “Slaves of New York” about women forced to live with men who have rent-controlled apartments. The updated 21st century version is all Gov. Cuomo’s: New York college grads become serfs tied to the land after graduation.

That’s wrong.

Unintended consequences #5: Students hampered by the serfdom rules will find their lifetime incomes contract.

Four years of working at Best Buy because you can’t afford to repay the loans by taking a better job out of New York is not going to be good for the anyone’s bottom line — the individual’s or the economy’s. Wages foregone tend to be wages lost. This will have a big impact on the affected young people’s economic well-being for years.

But Cuomo’s attempt to coerce students to stay in New York is wrong for a more profound reason: Serfdom is not a good business model. If you want economic growth, you have to create the conditions that attract it. You can’t just order people to stick around.

Though, I guess if you are New York Democrats and Republicans, you can try.

Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project.

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