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Tuition in Higher Education

Free? Really?

Within the past week, there have been numerous articles written about the Excelsior Scholarship initiative that was passed in New York State which may allow nearly one million people to potentially take advantage of free tuition at any of the CUNY or SUNY public higher education institutions.  The first article I saw, “New York Adopts Free Tuition,” arrived at 3:40 am on Monday via email from Inside Higher Education.  Similar news appeared in the Washington Post, CNBC and ABC News later that same day, and others throughout the week in the NY Post, CNN, Foxnews, the New York Times to name a few.  What started as a series of seemingly positive narratives about a progressive solution to provide affordable post-secondary education in the state of New York, has become a somewhat contentious issue due to the requirements to maintain the Excelsior Scholarship.  One such requirement is that students must stay and work in the state of New York upon graduation for the equivalent number of years the scholarship was granted or the scholarship becomes a loan with repayment requirements similar to other student loans.  Some experts are estimating that the impact of the scholarship will not be as significant as intended due to the qualifications needed to obtain it as well, which is outlined in the New York Times article “New York’s Free-Tuition Program Will Help Traditional, but Not Typical, Students,” written on Tuesday, April 11, 2017.  In an article I received from Inside Higher Education this morning, “A Marketplace in Confusion,” the new initiative may present significant issues to small private higher education institution, in the state who rely heavily upon tuition to balance their budgets and those that already have steep tuition discounting to attract students to their campuses.

However this initiative is viewed, I think one thing is certain:  a student’s education isn’t truly “free”.  In addition to tuition, there are a number of other costs to attend college such as fees, textbooks and materials, room & board (if you reside on campus), travel costs, as well as the cost of time that could otherwise be spent earning a living, a factor with a number of students who may want to attend but also must sustain a household. The cost to taxpayers in the State of New York is estimated to be  $89,000,000 the first year, and $146,000,000 within three years, so shouldn’t students have some level of investment in their education?

On Tuesday morning, I listened to a presentation about the cost of higher education now in relation to what it cost nearly 100 years ago – why it costs what it does, how much it actually costs the average student in out-of-pocket expenses, and what ways can higher education be made more affordable to everyone – delivered by Tom Kunkel, the President at St. Norbert College.  When considering that what is being taught using the materials and equipment that are needed to provide a holistic education to a student population that has extremely high expectations as well as support needs, it is no wonder that administrative costs have skyrocketed to meet these demands.  The national average for student debt after obtaining an undergraduate degree is $30,000, and although this is sometimes a burden for some graduates, Road and Track reported that the average cost of a new car is over $30,000 in May of 2016 which puts it into perspective.

Tom Kunkel’s insight was helpful to understand the issues and facts surrounding this topic better, at one point stating that “running a college is like being mayor of a small city.”  Can you imagine how difficult it must be to establish and pursue a collective vision for the future, maintain a complex operation keeping various constituencies motivated and happy, balance a multi-million dollar budget, and enrich posterity through ever-changing teaching and learning subjects and modalities?  How is it possible to accomplish all of this without some cost to students?

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