Cuomo’s “Free” Tuition Plan Reveals His Techno-Ignorance

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And away we go… Even before Donald Trump’s Inauguration, the 2020 presidential race has begun.

During last year’s presidential primary sweepstakes, the ever plucky Bernie Sanders (can you call a septuagenarian “plucky?) infamously declared he would abolish all college tuition. Plenty practical folks brushed this Marxist rhetoric aside, but those were the adults in the room. The kids ate it up. (And I wouldn’t doubt the idea appealed to a few of their parents, especially after seeing the burden of the obnoxious levels of debt modern college attendance can require.) Still, no one considered this a serious policy. For any number of reasons, common sense would normally dictate why this is so.

Of course, these are not normal times. When we’re forced to experience uncivil decorum among federally elected officials during the traditional Congressional ratification of the Electoral College vote; When even uber-liberal and current Vice President Joe Biden couldn’t hide his disgust with this small group of hateful politicians; When the “loyal” opposition moves from asking for birth certificates and tax returns towards making statements that would normally trigger a response from the Secret Service (but doesn’t); you know you don’t live in normal times.

So it’s not surprising, then, that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has emerged as a leading contender for the role of challenger to the presumed 2020 Trump re-election campaign – even before Trump himself has the office of the presidency formally bestowed upon him. What is surprising (but maybe not that much), is Cuomo’s decision to forgo the more mainstream position of Hillary Clinton (perhaps a role for Biden?) and instead take the more radical approach advocated by Bernie Sanders.

Hear me out. This isn’t merely some banal political pontification. Cuomo’s decision has dire consequences to all New Yorkers, and especially those in our region of Greater Western New York. His opening volley explains why.

With the New Year’s champagne cork barely dry, Cuomo appeared with Sanders at LaGuardia Community College to propose free college tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools for eligible students. Although it requires approval by the New York Legislature, Cuomo wants the $163 million program to begin in the fall for families earning less than $100,000 and expand through 2019 for families earning no more than $125,000. Cuomo hasn’t said where the money to fund this program will come from.

If you’re like me, this means, after scrounging to pay my own kids’ college education, I will now need to pay for other peoples’ kids’ college education.

Only in New York State.

Standing side by side with Bernie Sanders makes me wonder if Andrew Cuomo has a few screws loose in his head. How could a man of his position have risen so far without an ounce of common sense in that Italian noggin of his (and, having one, I know a thing or two about Italian noggins). Perhaps I’m still close enough to the memory of my grandparents’ generation to know what they were running away from in the first place when they had their hearts set on coming to America. They sought to break free from the shackles of an authoritarian government and live in a land where only you decided how to live your life (as long as you didn’t burden the life of another). Cuomo’s proposal would bring us closer to that monarchial proto-fascist Italy my grandparents escaped from.

It is true a “free” college education will bring more people into the collegiate ranks. It’s true just like it’s true that any free giveaway will draw an audience. That’s why radio stations, used car dealers, and time-share sales operatives regularly employ this sometimes questionable manipulative technique. “Free” stuff consistently attracts people – whether they need that stuff or not.

And therein lies the question: Does everyone need a college degree? And I’m not just talking about the alternative of training skilled workers for the vocational trades. In 2011, PayPal founder Peter Thiel offered high school students $100,000 to skip college and, instead, start their own businesses. Four years later, according to a May 14, 2015 article published by Business Insider, the success of the program could not be denied. Less than 10% of the students returned to college, with the remainder thriving in their businesses and some of them even selling out to big name Silicon Valley companies. This shouldn’t surprise you. Successful high-tech mavens including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. And look how many jobs Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook have created for both college graduates and “not” college graduates.

Returning to the more traditional alternatives, I spoke with someone who attended the very same LaGuardia Community College where Cuomo made his announcement. He said one third of his fellow students were kids who should’ve been in trade school or working in their first serious job. He believes the only reason why they attended the college was because that’s what everyone else did.

It is therefore reasonable to question Cuomo’s primary assumption: the need for a college degree. Returning to simple economics reveals how Cuomo may be in dire need of some basic remedial education in this field. It’s the law of supply and demand that states if the price of any product decreases, the demand will increase. In the face of increasing demand, and with a lower price point (in this case “free”), the quality of the product (in this case a college education) will suffer. And that couldn’t be worse for New York State public colleges. Right now – before “free” tuition – no New York State public college ranks in the top 50 according to Money magazine’s Best Colleges list. (The Niche.com ranking has 5 in the top 100, with SUNY@Buffalo the highest at #57 and US News also has 5 in the top 133 with SUNY@Binghamton the highest at #36.)

With increased demand comes increased attendance along with increased infrastructural costs. All for degrees of decreasing value – if everyone has a college degree, then no one has a college degree. Has Cuomo assessed these costs? And who gets to pay for them?

Unfortunately, as we have learned, because of the way the state legislature is currently constructed, those living in the Greater Western New York region have very little say in the politics of the state. As a result of this virtual taxation without representation, it’s you and I who will have the privilege – without choice – to pay for other families’ children to attend college – whether they need it or not.

For the sake of argument, let’s set aside the argument as to whether everyone must have a college degree. Let’s assume this to be the case. There is a better alternative to Cuomo’s proposal we can (and should) all agree on. Cuomo’s admits the justification of his proposal stems from the increasingly large college debt students accrue over the course of a four year college undergraduate career. If it’s a matter of reducing college loans, perhaps that’s best achieved by focusing on what’s driving college costs. Rather than offering “free” tuition for attending public colleges, New York State should join the twenty-first century and adopt a “freemium” model when it comes to public college degrees.

What would this “freemium” model look like? It’s based on the model many internet sites (including media site’s like the Sentinel’s) have adopted. A basic level of content is available free to everyone. Higher level (so-called “premium”) content requires payment. New York State already has the “premium” portion of the “freemium” model (i.e., the more expensive “in-person” experience offered by the existing SUNY system). All it needs is the basic level. Now, here’s the kicker: New York State could offer this basic level right now with no additional costs to the State.

How would New York State adopt a “freemium” model to the State college system? The state would merely need to begin accepting credit for students taking classes from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) like those currently offered by distant learning providers like Coursera, FutureLearn, and Canvas.net. (Although these aggregators use university professors for their courses, specific private universities may also offer such courses). The cost of obtaining the necessary certification for taking these classes is nominal, ranging from $30 to $100 at Coursera. As a high school junior, my son took a structural engineering class from Florida State through Coursera and received his certificate for $79. (I took a Coursera course from Wharton, but didn’t obtain a certificate so it cost nothing.)

MOOCs represent the basic part of the “freemium” model. It would cost New York State nothing to begin accepting these certificates for credit. Assuming the standard 4-5 classes per semester, the out-of-pocket cost to students would only be from $240 to $1,000 per year. New York State can then make this “free” by allowing students (not their parents) to deduct these expenses from their taxes. Why not their parents? Because MOOCs will allow students to live at home and work while they’re taking these classes. Any student should be able to find a job that pays at least $1,000 a year (if they can’t maybe even a college degree won’t help them).

There. It’s done. Anyone who wants to get a college degree can. And without racking up the usual debt. Problem solved at virtually no cost to the taxpayer.

What’s amazing is that this solution is so obvious, so easy, and so common sense, it’s a wonder someone of Cuomo’s stature (or at least someone on his staff) did not see it. Why would he fall back on a failed 19th century (i.e., state-sponsored) economic model when he has the success of the MOOCs right in front of his eyes?

Oh, wait. Isn’t this the same Andrew Cuomo who’s leadership at HUD under the Clinton administration led to similar 19th century based policies that resulted in the sub-prime mortgage debacle and a national economic crisis from which we have not yet fully recovered.

Yep, that explains it.

Maybe elected officials ought to be required, like any other professional employee, to take continuing education courses in order to remain credentialed.

I know a good MOOC for that.

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