The Forum | Costs

Free Tuition Won’t Cure What Ails Higher Education

May 10, 2017 by Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill

So Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “free” college tuition plan—the Excelsior Scholarship—is now reality. While the fanfare has died down, New Yorkers and policy watchers across the country are trying to discern how the new entitlement will help improve college affordability in the Empire State.

Yet tax-weary New Yorkers ought to be skeptical of free college because it won’t solve the problem. For starters, plenty of fiscal questions remain, one analysis from the Urban Institute suggested that free college proposals might ultimately benefit middle-income families the most by defraying the cost of tuition, rather than helping low-income students they are intended to support.

But leaving aside the numbers, here’s a deeper question: will taxpayers be getting what they pay for?

Free access to a college education won’t do a lick of good if that undergraduate experience is devoid of substance and serious academic requirements. Research suggests too many students leave college unprepared for career and citizenship, and shifting around who pays for college will not suddenly ensure that students graduate with the skills they need.

According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s survey of college curricula, more than two-thirds of colleges and universities in New York received a “C” or lower for their weak general education requirements.

Nearly two-thirds of New York colleges and universities do not require a course in literature, and only twelve of the schools surveyed require foreign language at the intermediate level.

The University at Buffalo, the state’s flagship university, is a textbook example of the problem. UB posts only a 55 percent four-year graduation rate, falling far short for a university expected to produce workforce-ready graduates and educated citizens in four years. UB receives a C in the report; its general education requirements don’t require literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history or economics.

Essential subjects and rigorous academic standards have become endangered species at many of New York’s colleges and universities. Not only do weak requirements and frivolous courses shortchange students, they are also costly for colleges and universities. Research shows that reducing electives and curricular bloat can save up to 10% of educational costs per semester.

Advocates of free college are concerned with economic inequality. Yet, sadly, these curricular failings ultimately shortchange students at a time when a mastery of college-level skills and knowledge is indispensable for social and economic mobility. Students who gain access to a truly high-quality and intellectually-rich college education will be able to become well-informed citizens, secure their all-important first jobs, and steadily climb the economic ladder.

It’s no surprise then that public confidence in institutions of higher education is eroding, particularly as tuition rises across the SUNY system and at so many other colleges and universities. A recent poll even found nearly a quarter of respondents said college was “a waste” of money, while nearly one-fifth said they wished they had chosen a cheaper option.

Without the underpinning of strong requirements and substantively-rich curriculum, all the free college scholarships in the world will do nothing more than expand access to a faltering system that produces results woefully inadequate for today’s needs.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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