Can New York Teach Us All a Lesson?

I teach at a community college where the students’ median family income is less than $50,000 a year, and nearly half of the student body comes from families who earn less than $30,000. Average tuition is about $6,750 for a full-time student, meaning that, for most potential students, school would be out of reach if it were not for state and federal aid.

It’s lucky, then, that a little more than half qualify for financial aid — but that means half do not, and they are left to struggle to pay tuition and buy books and supplies. Most are forced to borrow, and they leave community college several thousand dollars in debt – a lot of money for students who often start behind the economic eight ball in the first place.

This is common around the state – and the nation. Tuition for New Jersey’s 19 community colleges range between $4,500 and $8,900, which is far cheaper than most of the state’s four-year schools. Nationally, the figure is lower – about $3,500 – which also is far cheaper than their four-year counterparts.

But, for many, even a two-year school can remain out of reach. Consider New Jersey: Our cost of living is higher than much of the nation’s, and students often have to prioritize their spending. Some of my students will put off buying textbooks until several weeks into the semester, assuming they buy them at all (it is one reason we have moved away from texts and now rely on a database).

According to Legal Services of New Jersey’s Real Cost of Living Report, a family with two adults and two school-age children in the state would need to earn $64,000 annually to cover basic needs– which include housing, food, transportation, insurance, clothing and other expenses. A family earning $64,000 would be earning far more than most of those who send their kids to our school.

The difficulties these students face paying for school can prevent them from matriculating, which then leaves them vulnerable in an economy that now requires workers to have some post-high school learning, if not a degree.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton had made student debt an issue during the last presidential campaign, with Sanders offering the more comprehensive play – free tuition – and Clinton offering debt relief. Once the primaries ended, however, the tuition issue seemed to fall by the way side and now with Donald Trump poised to enter the White House and having the support of a Republican Congress, a national tuition program is off the table.

But it doesn’t mean free tuition is dead, as a policy prescription. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a centrist Democrat, unveiled a plan that would offer hundreds of thousands of New York students a tuition-free education. According to the New York Times, “any college student who has been accepted to a state or city university in New York — including two-year community colleges — will be eligible provided they or their family earn $125,000 or less annually.”

The program would be structured as a scholarship program, with the state providing grant money to cover the gap between what students pay in tuition and what they collect from other financial aid programs. The details remain a bit murky, though the governor “hopes for a quick start” and a “a three-year rollout beginning in the fall,” provided it wins legislative approval.

New York, if it wins approval, would be the first state to offer tuition-free school since California ended the practice several decades ago, and it could serve as a model for addressing the college inequality gap. As tuitions have risen and federal and state aid has stagnated or fallen, it has become more and more difficult for kids from working class families to earn degrees. This is partly what has driven rates of economic mobility downward in the United States in recent years.

If New York is successful, other states could follow suit and shift the debate on the tuition problem in a way that Sanders could not – and could lead blue states to push for other progressive legislation – a negative image of the damage that Republican states did over the last eight years. We’re already seeing it happen with the minimum wage, earned sick time and wage theft in New York, California, New Jersey and elsewhere, and with environmental regulations in California.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. He teaches writing at Middlesex County College and journalism at Rutgers University and covers social issues for NJ Spotlight. His latest book is As an Alien in a Land of Promise ( Email,; blog,; Twitter, @newspoet41 and @kaletjournalism; Facebook,; Instagram, @kaletwrites.

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2017

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