Tuition plan will be revealing

Tuition plan will be revealing

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed a dramatic expansion in social welfare spending.

With a new president on the verge of being sworn in as the nation's chief executive, the first shot recently was fired in the campaign for the White House four years from now.

At least that's how a recent announcement by New York's Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo was interpreted in some quarters.

He announced his intention to establish a program of free tuition for the thousands of students enrolled in the state's university system and the New York City's college system.

Cuomo's proposal, which requires legislative approval, initially would cover students with family incomes of up to $100,000 and, eventually, those with incomes up to $125,000.

It should be no surprise that Cuomo could not provide specific costs estimates for his grand idea.

For starters, who knows what tuition costs will be in coming years? That's one of the issues that has undermined the financial integrity of the College Illinois prepaid tuition plan in which parents can pay fixed amounts now to cover the costs of tuition and fees 15 to 20 years in the future.

Cuomo administration officials, however, said the annual outlay for the 2019 school year would be $163 million, although the number could fluctuate according to the levels of participation and need.

The free tuition proposal was among the many social welfare proposals promised by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the socialist who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton.

Sanders joined Cuomo for the tuition announcement, adding fuel to the fires of political speculation about the governor's 2020 ambitions.

The free tuition plan, of course, raises many questions.

Is it affordable?

If it is affordable, is it wise to use the taxes paid by working stiffs to cover the tuition of those who will outearn them on the strength of their free educations?

What's an appropriate income level for the families of those who will receive tuition assistance?

On the other hand, college students who graduate with mountainous debts also pose a social problem.

The good news is that, if state legislators approve, New York state will provide guidance to the rest of the nation on this question.

It's been stated many times that each of the 50 states that make up the United States is a laboratory of democracy. Experiences by individual states can provide useful guidance — either success or failure — for other states considering similar policies to consider.

But, suffice it to say, the lessons learned in one state aren't necessarily easily transferable to other states because of the complexity of the issue.

For instance, public university tuition in New York state is among the lowest in the nation, $6,470 for the four-year school in the State University of New York system and $4,350 in the state's two-year community college system. Tuition at the University of Illinois is more than twice that of the SUNY system and rates vary from state to state.

Further, New York already provides nearly $1 billion in tuition assistance, offering grants that in some cases that nearly cover the tuition bill of $6,470 in the SUNY system.

It's those kind of details that will affect the costs of Cuomo's proposed program, details that will be different elsewhere.

At the same time, New York state is well known for the heavy tax burden it imposes on its citizens. Citizens in other states may not wish to emulate that approach to pay the costs of college tuition for families earning six-figure incomes.

It remains to be seen how New York legislators respond to the Cuomo proposal. But, so far at least, Democratic and Republican legislators appear receptive to the idea. If they pass it, the stage will be set for an interesting and useful examination of the pros and cons of this bold, perhaps recklessly so, idea.

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