New York Free College Scholarship Program Not So "Free"?

New York Free College Scholarship Program Not So "Free"?
Susan Dutca-Lovell

New York's free college scholarship program is being met with heavy criticism as more details have emerged and it is set to start in fall of 2017. Though lauded for being the first of its kind to offer free college tuition at public colleges and universities, many European countries already offer free college, regardless of family income level...and at the tax payers' expense.

What does free college look like? Unlike the U.S., many European countries have lower college enrollment percentages and have higher taxes which allows for more social service programs, including "free" college. Countries such as Germany and Finland offer free college but have 49.4% and 43.8% total tax wedges (or dollar measure of income tax rate), respectively. Even if tax wedges are not exclusively affected by free college tuition, countries like these that offer such incentives still have higher income tax rates than the U.S. by a considerable margin. The current U.S. tax wedge of 31.7% could potentially increase were the U.S. to follow Europe's free college example.

New York's free college scholarship titled the Excelsior Scholarship mandates recipients to work and reside in New York, post-graduation, for the same number of years they received the free college scholarship. Critics of the free college scholarship program believe that the work and residency obligations are "at odds with the historic relationship between public higher education and taxpayers." Graduates who are forced to stay in-state after they graduate risk potential lower earnings and not being able to freely compete in the national labor market. Additionally, students would need to complete 30 credits per year in order to retain the free college scholarship, which could be difficult for first-generation and low-income students who may need to work summers to afford rent and other fees. In the end, it seems that "the neediest are left with nothing but a feel-good message," according to the Director of Federal Relations and Policy Analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

One way that students have been going to college with little to no debt is through free college scholarships. While advocacy for free college tuition programs has been gaining traction, going to college with the help of money that does not need to be repaid isn't a new concept.

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