By Chris DeMarco
In what was largely a political power play aimed at a possible 2020 run for president, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced the Excelsior Scholarship, granting many students in New York State “free” college tuition. While this was likely to please many millennials who supported Bernie Sanders’ plan for free college, in reality, it did nothing to address the crisis of unaffordable college. The Excelsior Scholarship is akin to bringing a stick of butter to a gunfight.
The real problem is that costs have skyrocketed. In 1990, SUNY tuition was $1,350, which adjusted for inflation in 2017 dollars, is $2,497. Logically then, one would assume that SUNY tuition in 2017 would be $2,497. But instead it now is a whopping $9,271. Tuition in SUNY schools is almost 4 (3.7) times what it cost in 1990, and the product, a college education, has the same value. (Or arguably even less value as the college degree is the new high school diploma in today’s high-information economy). This great increase is creating a “bubble” in the market for a college education. Eventually, liberal arts majors will realize that going $100,000 into debt for a gender studies degree only to end up working at Starbucks is probably not a worthwhile proposition. This bubble, similar to the housing bubble that caused “the great recession” of 08-09, is the result of overeager government lending creating artificial demand which drives up prices exorbitantly. According to a study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, for every dollar of government student aid, tuition goes up by 70 cents ¹. Cuomo’s “free” tuition will again raise the cost barrier for attending college in New York, creating an army of indentured servants who are required to work in New York after graduation.
What America really needs in order to create a truly affordable and accessible system of higher education is to return to 1990 pricing when it was possible for a student’s summer job to cover the cost of tuition. This is far easier said than done as federal student aid is not going anywhere (nor should it until prices are reasonable again) and the entitled millennials of today are pushing for even more aid which will only exacerbate the problem. Glad-handed politicians like Bernie Sanders and Andrew Cuomo will further increase student aid until the bubble in the value of a degree bursts by spending other people’s money. Instead, they should look at ways to rein in costs.
Reining in costs however does not mean a strict austerity that will lead to fewer professors, larger class sizes, and a greatly diminished quality of education. It simply requires a cutting down of the administrative bloat, bureaucratic red tape, and fees that have nothing to do with education that plague higher education. These are the real causes of extortionate pricing, even at public universities. Bloomberg reported that the number of administrative positions at universities have grown by 60% since 1993. In comparison, the number of tenure track faculty (the people who actually contribute to a student’s education) has only grown by 6% over the same time period ². Like any bureaucracy, college administration is self-interested and in most cases it is accountable only to itself for its bloated costs. The government will continue to increase student loans, and the costs will be passed on to mostly poor and middle-class students who have no choice but to accept such usury if they would like to attend college.
Not only are administrative bloatocracies unaccountable, they often have a heavy partisan bias on many issues. For instance, one administrative department that has been greatly expanded is the admissions department. If students were simply chosen on the basis of merit in high school, the admissions process would be a no-brainer; applicants with the highest GPA would be accepted, as was the case in the past. Instead, teams of trained “experts” now pore over data that should be irrelevant to admissions, such as race, in order to have a more “fair” process. Whatever that means. Another cause of administrative bloat is the increase in Title IX spending. Schools spend millions of dollars each year setting up kangaroo courts that are severely unfair and biased against males to adjudicate cases of sexual assault. These cases require full time administrators, counselors, and lawyers (although the accused is not allowed a lawyer), with each case costing the school hundreds of thousands of dollars of (borrowed!) student’s money that could have actually gone towards education. This should not be interpreted as a dismissal of the seriousness of sexual assault; the United States already has an excellent system of fair and impartial courts in which to try these cases, at no cost to students.
The goal of a public university should be to educate the students as efficiently as possible, and although Binghamton University does a good job of this compared to other schools, it is a miserable failure compared to how things were in the past. The measure of success should be how cheaply a student gets his or her degree. After all, it’s a well-known inside joke that most of us would have gone to a different school if we had the money. It’s about time we took a hard look at where our borrowed money is wasted.
- Photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo