State’s tuition plan invests in the future

This newspaper recently ran a compelling Publisher’s notebook by John D’Agostino (Feb. 17) on the subject of “free” college, discussing the hotly debated (and incredibly nuanced) Excelsior Scholarship Program. It warned of hidden costs lurking in the shadowy sub-text of any such subsidization. While a meaningful analysis, it misses the mark on the significance of programs like Excelsior.

For those not familiar, the Excelsior Scholarship Program is a higher education aid package currently being considered by the New York State Legislature. Its goal is to help middle class families afford the sticker price of a public college education. The program provides aid in addition to New York’s Tuition Assistance Program and the Federal PELL grant if and only if those combined aid packages do not already cover tuition.

What does that mean? It means that though technically 940,000 families are eligible (insofar as they make $125,000 or less per year) an enormous percentage of those families are already receiving full tuition subsidy in one form or another. Therefore, the program largely helps those who don’t already qualify for TAP in the $80,000 to $125,000 annual salary range. That may seem a bit high by Western New York metrics, but it’s crucial to consider that downstate residents in that income bracket enjoy roughly the same purchasing power as many Western New Yorkers in lower tiers.

The question “How will this be paid for” should be preceded by asking “Is this worth paying for?”

Regardless of your political views, the data shows that return on investment for higher education subsidization is like nothing else. Recent studies from the SUNY Research Foundation show $5 in economic activity generated by every $1 in Higher Education investment.

Using this formula, a $163 million program can be expected to yield $815 million dollars in economic activity, primarily in Upstate and Western New York where most SUNY centers are located. I’m a proud product of Jamestown Community College (and now the University at Albany) and I feel 100 percent secure in the fact that my earning potential is tenfold what it would have been without my education. That means I can contribute back to my community with philanthropy and taxes on a level I may not have been capable of sans degree.

It is clear that Western New York is in desperate need of workforce revitalization, especially on the periphery of major urban centers like Buffalo. Manufacturing jobs will not be returning any day soon and the future lies in an educated workforce. No institution can churn out a sophisticated workforce ready population like the SUNY system. While it’s tempting to see this as a free ride for students, the facts show that it’s a strategic long term investment in talent capital that has the potential to reverse the trend of economic stagnation in this region. The more cynical among us might grumble about those entitled millennials, but the more pragmatic see this as a tried and true way to spark the economic engine and provide a better tomorrow for the next generation.

As the original article noted, tuition does not even reflect a majority of the cost of college attendance a public university. That means that students and families still have plenty of skin in the game. As college costs continue to rise to produce better academic outcomes, so too does the burden on middle-class families who are often left out of the discussion on affordability in favor of citizens in the lowest income brackets. Whatever else it may be, Excelsior is a win for the middle class.

This piece shouldn’t be read as a defense of the Excelsior Program itself (Indeed, the program has numerous flaws and falls significantly short of what its clever marketing promises). Rather read this as an apologia of the idea that we can and should be contributing generously to affordability and accessibility in higher education. To do so is more than just a social good for hundreds of thousands of students and families but a well advised economic strategy with a huge payout for all of us.

Rey Muniz III is a resident of Chautauqua County and graduate of Jamestown Community College and the University at Albany. He currently attends The University at Albany and serves as Director of Legislative Affairs for the Student Assembly of the State University of New York, an organization representative of more than 600,000 students statewide. In his role, he specializes in Higher Education policy and legislative advocacy.