How to open doors to higher education for all: Look to the state of New York

Jim Malatras, President, Rockefeller Institute of Government says that New York’s recent offer of free tuition for state residents is a game changer for making higher education accessible to all.

1In today’s world, the lack of economic means shouldn’t stifle educational opportunity. Yet, for many, no matter the intellectual capacity, there remain financial barriers to a college education.

Completing a higher education credential—be it an advanced graduate degree, bachelor’s degree or training certificate—is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity. More well-paying jobs require an advanced college degree than in the past; indeed, a college degree is the key to economic mobility.

In the United States, like in many countries across the globe, access to a college education was once an exclusive benefit of the economic and social elite. Today, because of investments in strong public systems of higher education, college has become more inclusive for all. And yet, in the United States and other industrialized nations, there is plenty of more work to be done.

The recent GEM report paper, “Six ways to ensure higher education leaves no one behind” serves an important blueprint for states and nations to increase higher education access for all. The State of New York is putting the theory in this paper into practice, providing access to higher education regardless of socio-economic status by offering low tuition and generous need-based financial support.

Tuition at four-year schools in the two public university systems, the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY), costs about $6,400 a year, which is significantly less than other public systems such as the University at Massachusetts system ($14,596), and the Pennsylvania State University system ($17,900). When compared to average private school tuition ($34,000), New York’s system of public education is already a bargain.


In New York State’s public university systems, low tuition is coupled with robust state grant programs. Together, they provide even greater access to low-income families. In addition to low tuition, New York offers generous grant programs through the needs-based Tuition Assistance Program (TAP)—to a tune of $1 billion a year in grants, serving hundreds of thousands of students—many receiving full scholarships. On top of TAP are programs that provide additional support, like the Equal Opportunity Program and Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge program. In addition, for those students that graduate saddled with significant student loan debt, the state enacted the Get on Your Feet student loan forgiveness program, where the state pays student loans for eligible students for two years. No other state has done anything quite like this.

This year, the State of New York went a step further to be the first state in the nation to offer free tuition at any public four-year and community college for residents of New York (or parents or guardians of dependent children) earning under $125,000 a year. Some states like Tennessee offer free tuition at their community colleges.

It’s a potential game-changer.

The critics, and why they’re wrong

The program wasn’t without its critics coming from both sides of the political spectrum. Among the central critiques: the program would harm independent private schools; it didn’t do enough to help low-income students, and it didn’t help that many new students. I addressed many of the criticisms in more detail in a recent Rockefeller Institute piece.


Some pointed out that this isn’t free college, it’s tuition free college, and that there are higher costs, like books, room and board that aren’t covered. Thus, the program is a “missed opportunity” to help those who are still unable to afford college. But, there’s no denying that the program does lower the overall cost of college. The average four-year direct total costs of a public college education in New York— tuition, fees, and room and board —is reduced by about a third, equivalent to a saving of $25,880. The savings could increase if the student attends a community college. In those cases, there is virtually little attendance cost.

Another criticism of New York’s free tuition program is that it is geared towards the middle class and does nothing for the less affluent. The truth is, it helps more people struggling economically. A student of a family making $100,000 a year—not well off in New York—did not qualify for any tuition assistance prior to the free tuition program, but now they do. College for many is financially out of reach, unless they take on significant student debt. Free tuition would help these families considerably.

New York state is a model for college affordability and access. And the adoption of free tuition for all public schools continues the state’s mission to give all people a chance for economic mobility and life opportunity.

Implementing free tuition on this scale in large state in the United States, like New York, is game-changing recognition of the importance of expanding access to affordable quality higher education to all. That’s not to say it’s perfect, and there are models in other countries that achieve the same goals as the GEM Report paper shows. But, you must start somewhere.



  1. Hi there!
    Although the program does seem like a great initiative in the state of New York, do you not believe there is a more fundamental issue at hand surrounding the quality of education students receive in high school between private and public? Although allowing poorer income students to go to public colleges with free tuition is a great initiative, the fact that these students are already worse off because of their secondary education at an underfunded public school is what first must be addressed prior to discussing university. Let me know what you think!

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