With the hope of making a college education more affordable and accessible, Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders announced agreement on a free tuition plan for students attending New York colleges and universities. On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton and Governor Cuomo held a ceremonial bill signing for the new program, called the Excelsior Scholarship Program, at LaGuardia Community College in New York City. The scholarship provides students up to $5,500 each year to pay for college tuition.

While the legislation is laudable, it really should be viewed as a down payment on what should become a more comprehensive, longer-term progressive vision for debt-free college. This is because the details of the legislation demonstrate some significant shortcomings that will certainly have to be addressed in administrative rules and other actions.

The Scholarship Program Favors Middle-Income over Low-Income Students

Making college more broadly available should be the state’s primary goal, but the new Excelsior Scholarship Program is not really designed to address the issue of college access. In effect, while the program gives middle-class families a much-needed hand-up, it leaves many of the impediments facing lower-income families intact.

The program provides tuition support to families making up to $125,000 annually, but effectively excludes many lower-income families from receiving any benefit, because they are already receiving grant aid for college under other federal or state programs. In doing so, the legislation ignores one of the most significant barriers to college for low-income students: the need for more financial assistance to pay for related college costs such as food, housing, and transportation. The bill also contains another barrier for low-income families, because it requires full-time enrollment and graduation within two or four years (depending on the program), both of which are hurdles that low-income students have difficulty clearing simply because they do not have the minimum financial resources necessary to fully commit to obtaining a college degree. Although the legislation makes some important exceptions for parental leave and military service, coverage for other family circumstances or financial hardships will have to be hashed out in rule-making.

The New Plan May Actually Squeeze Out Some Low-Income Students

Another challenge for the new plan is the expected increase of competition for admissions to New York’s state colleges, and consequently their capacity to take on more students. The interest in free college will certainly result in more New York residents seeking to enroll at State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) campuses. To take in more students, the colleges will need more professors, more classrooms, more labs, more study space, and more support. Yet the plan supports only a small increase.

With even more students seeking to enroll at state colleges than there are seats available, there will be a clamor for growth, prompting the state to expand the system to accommodate the rising tide. At least, that is the hope of free college advocates. A more worrisome possibility would be that, absent system expansion, more-advantaged, higher-income students would displace the low-income students who currently enroll at SUNY and CUNY, leaving those low-income students without affordable options. This is a potential problem that needs to be monitored in the implementation of the plan.

Sudden Debt for Graduates Who Leave New York State

The Albany politicking around the new Excelsior Scholarship led to the inclusion of a provision that is both embarrassing and probably unworkable. Lawmakers added a requirement that recipients’ scholarships be automatically converted into loans if, as graduates, they do not live and work in New York State for a certain number of years. This provision is not only likely to come as surprise to students who don’t closely read the fine print of their scholarship, it is also bad economic policy.

We live in a national economy. New York companies recruit scores of talented individuals from other states to boost its productivity and talent, providing considerable economic benefits to the state. Why should New York promote policies that keep talented individuals from similarly reaching their best economic potential? It is inevitable that some New York–trained students will find it economically in their interest to take employment in other states. In truth, students may think they can accurately predict or steer their own employment future, but they can’t, and programs that don’t acknowledge this reality are bound to fail.

In truth, students may think they can accurately predict or steer their own employment future, but they can’t, and programs that don’t acknowledge this reality are bound to fail.

Some years ago, Congress created a program that tied a college scholarship to teaching after graduation. The intention of the program was laudable—steering graduates toward teaching at low-income schools—and every indication is that the students who got the scholarship fully intended to meet the scholarship’s requirements. But, real life got in the way, and a whopping 75 percent of the participating students ended up doing something else, according to current estimates. These students’ inability to predict their futures resulted in them encountering “sudden debt,” as their scholarships were converted into student loans.

The lesson? Do not condition scholarships on factors over which students have little or no control. As Tom Hillard of the Center for an Urban Future points out, “So a graduate who lives in Chatham [New York] and four years later gets a summer job in Pittsfield [just over the border in Massachusetts] could suddenly face a student loan burden of up to $27,500.” That’s a heavy economic penalty to levy precisely at the time when a young graduate is choosing the best course for the future, and it is false and misleading to call that kind of offering a scholarship. Instead, it really is just a loan, which is only forgivable under certain circumstances. Bottom line, when enrolling in college, there should be no financial surprises: students should know what they owe.

State Colleges Should Stay True to Their Mission

In the past couple of decades, and especially in response to the financial pressures of the Great Recession, many states have disinvested in higher education. Over this time, the public also may have lost sight of public higher education value as a core commitment to an engaged citizenry, robust communities, and a strong economy. Instead, rising tuition at both public and private colleges has caused higher education to be viewed as an individual commodity, something that people must buy (or borrow for) for themselves. By equating the cost of tuition with the value of a college education, we have blinded ourselves to the shared benefits of developing each other’s talents and skills.

When our public discussion of higher education focuses mainly on managing staggering student debt, our shared prosperity is threatened. At its core, college should be about building a vibrant, creative, caring, humane, adaptive world. New York’s new scholarship program is a good first step toward righting the way we think about the purpose and role of higher education in society.

Photo credit: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.