Andrew Cuomo’s Amazing Free College Math

Ridiculous Campaign Promise Yields Headlines Not Results

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. January 4, 2017 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. January 4, 2017 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Politicians and press releases are like junkies and fixes. It is hard to get enough of them, and the temporary highs they generate simply create the desire for more. This sad truism describes the last few weeks as Governor Andrew Cuomo traveled around New York giving multiple state-of-the-state addresses. The Governor’s craving for media attention was not just unseemly, it was cynical.

Take a closer look at just one of the 35 new initiatives that the Governor spoke about during his 8 speeches across the state: free college for New York families earning up to $125,000 annually. The proposal, one of 35 that that the Governor expounded on out of 149 in his 380-page state-of-the state book, was a well-tested crowd pleaser and headline grabber. Free college was one of Bernie Sanders’ key applause lines during his presidential primary run, and Hillary Clinton used it in her stump speeches as well. In fact, the Vermont Senator sat on the podium as Mr. Cuomo announced his Excelsior Scholarship at CUNY’s LaGuardia Community College.

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Touting it as a first-in-the-nation initiative, the Governor was not wrong in his assessment that the promise of free college would generate headlines. Newspapers throughout the state and across the nation were quick to hail any reasonable proposal that might alleviate the staggering debt that so many families and college students are taking on to cope with tuitions that have risen 1200% in the last 35 years.

Indeed, the Cuomo proposal looks reasonable at first glance. The Governor said it would cost the state only $163 million annually when the program is fully phased in by 2019.

Well, his staff must have been participating in a medical marijuana expansion program when they scored the math. Or working with the same folks at the MTA and Port Authority – both controlled by the Governor – who do such a bang-up job estimating the cost of their construction programs. It is far more likely that the Excelsior Scholarship program will set taxpayers back more $2 billion a year – and perhaps as much as $4.6 billion.

That far higher cost estimate is not based on any special insight we have or whistle-blowing that we were privy to. It is based on the assumptions included in the Governor’s announcement – but then double-checked against state documents.

We were shocked at the cavalier fuzziness of the Governor’s math. Did he not expect anyone to check the underlying assumptions?

The Governor said that there were approximately 940,000 middle class families in New York – earning under $125,000 annually – who would be eligible for the free tuition program. (About 80% of all New York families with college-age kids earn under that income cut-off.) There are just over 1 million students enrolled in New York colleges: about 200,000 attending SUNY senior colleges; another 220,000 at SUNY community colleges; 100,000 at CUNY senior colleges; and 100,000 at city community colleges. There are also some 500,000 students attending private colleges and universities in the state.

Yearly tuition at a public senior college is about $6400 and community college tuition runs, on average about $4500. The cumulative tuition bill just for these 620,000 students currently enrolled in New York state public colleges and universities is about $2.32 billion a year. The Governor’s low-ball estimate assumes that none of the other 320,000 eligible kids eligible kids choose to stay in New York, lured by the free tuition. That would push the Excelsior cost up another $1.6 billion annually. And the Governor’s plan also assumes that the well-funded and effective lobby for private colleges doesn’t lean on the Governor for some relief – or protection.

In fairness, the Governor did point out that the state budget currently included approximately $1 billion annually in tuition assistance grants – most under the TAP program – for families earning up to $80,000 annually. So that money shouldn’t be double-counted in the new program. But TAP grants are a measly $500 for families earning at the higher range. And Federal Pell grants give these middle class families a similarly paltry amount. (Only about 40% of New York students are eligible for Pell grants, and the average amount is $2000 annually.)

The Governor didn’t mention however, that the state budget already includes an additional $6 billion annually in operating funds that go to the state colleges and universities directly; in addition to the $1 billion TAP funds. These state subsidies are how tuition is kept relatively low. The Governor’s plan must assume that the schools’ inevitable cost increases will be paid for from the General Fund spending, pushing the cost to taxpayers even higher.

So here is the bottom line on our back-of-the-envelope calculation: It will cost New Yorkers at least $1 billion a year, and probably closer to $2 billion. We asked the Governor’s press office to help us sort through these numbers. But when pressed on explaining the assumptions, the representative begged off – saying she had to attend another Cuomo speech – and told us to send her an email with our assumptions and questions. We did; and have heard nothing back for over a week.

Its real cost needs to be calculated and admitted, and the program’s benefits assessed against other worthy initiatives.

Governor Cuomo apparently is not one to worry about the little things – like where the money is going to come from to pay for his grand ideas. Just look at the funding uncertainty surrounding the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, the Penn Station and Port Authority bus station replacements, or the Gateway project. So if the Excelsior Scholarship programs costs, 8 or 10 or 20 the original estimate, “What me worry?”

Free college is worthy of serious debate. (And let’s put aside that tuition represents only about one-third or one-half of a student’s annual cost: room, board, books, and fees have to be paid as well.) Its real cost needs to be calculated and admitted, and the program’s benefits assessed against other worthy initiatives. For example, would we be better off spending a similar amount on early childhood education or extended-day and enriched K-12 programs?

Whether Cuomo plans to run for president in 2020 is anyone’s guess. But he has already announced that he is running for another term in the governor’s mansion in 2018. Even without that admission, with his free college announcement, the shut down of the Indian Point nuclear plant, and a state-wide fracking ban, he has certainly shored up his left wing. No surprise there. We only wish his math was more honest. We also encourage others – particularly The New York Times which enthusiastically bought into the Governor’s rose-colored narrative – to dig a little deeper. A little skepticism of popular ideas – liberal or conservative – are healthy in a pluralistic society.