Thousands of New York State families struggle every day to pay the costs of college education for their children. In most cases students are forced to mortgage their futures by borrowing to pay for college, graduating with an average debt of about $30,000 while earning a bachelor’s degree.
Now there may be an alternative for families who don’t have the money for college and students who don’t want to go deep into debt.
They can go to prison.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has announced a new statewide initiative to give incarcerated individuals the opportunity to earn a college degree through funding college classes in prisons across New York. The governor cites studies that show college education for prisoners dramatically decreases recidivism rates while saving money. Those who earn a college degree while in prison are less likely to end up behind bars again, he said, therefore decreasing the number of inmates in New York state prisons.
The initiative will provide college level education at 10 New York State prisons, one in each region of the state. The program would offer both associates and bachelor’s degrees.
“Giving men and women in prison the opportunity to earn a college degree costs our state less and benefits our society more,” Cuomo said. “New York State currently spends $60,000 per year on every prisoner in our system, and those who leave have a 40 percent chance of ending up back behind bars. Existing programs show that providing a college education in our prisons is much cheaper for the state and delivers far better results. Someone who leaves prison with a college degree has a real shot at a second lease on life because their education gives them the opportunity to get a job and avoid falling back into a cycle of crime.”
Cuomo may be right about providing college educations to criminals, but shouldn’t New York State be doing more to help hard-working, law-abiding families with college?
Costs to attend one of the 64 State University of New York campuses vary, but the average for the 2013-14 academic year is $22,700, according to SUNY. SUNY costs have increased an average of 8.6 percent a year for the past decade, according to a study by the Albany Times Union newspaper.
The average SUNY student earning a bachelor’s degree leaves school owing $22,575 in student loans, according to SUNY. The national average is $26,600.
That makes the SUNY system “an excellent value,” according to SUNY. Is it?
It’s true SUNY costs can be half of some major private colleges and universities, but often the actual costs to families and students are much higher at SUNY than at private schools. That’s because financial aid is virtually nil for a middle class student in SUNY, while private schools can offer attractive financial aid packages.
Not only does the lack of financial aid cost New York families, it forces many of its top students to leave the state for higher education. Often they leave and never come back.
Look at the case of a local student, a national merit scholarship semifinalist, whose college choice came down to SUNY-Geneseo and the University of Notre Dame.
The cost to attend Geneseo, arguably SUNY’s top academic campus, in 2013-14 is $21,670. Geneseo offered no scholarship assistance to the local student, although it did offer loans.
The cost to attend Notre Dame, generally ranked among the leading universities in the country, in 2013-14 is $57,117. Notre Dame offered the local student nearly $40,000 in scholarships.
In the end it cost the local family less to have their student attend a $57,117 university in Indiana than a $21,670 college in New York.
That situation is not unique, particularly among high-achieving, middle class students — the very students New York State should be trying to keep at home.
Cuomo’s plan to educate prison inmates may be sound, but it also seems like sound policy to promote a public education system that rewards New York’s best students and encourages them to keep their talents at home. Where is the help for those students?
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb railed against the governor’s proposal.
“If the state is going to hand out free college educations, why don’t we start with deserving students who actually respect the law?,” Kolb said. “This proposal is an insult to families struggling to find money for tuition, to young men and women who take on mountains of debt in student loans, and to the millions of New Yorkers who pay the highest taxes in the nation and are now asked to subsidize college degrees for criminals.
“Paying for a college education is an issue that keeps parents up at night,” Kolb said. “It is a massive financial commitment that has become even more onerous as years have gone on. Any effort to reward convicts with something that law-abiding men and women can hardly afford is an affront to all New Yorkers.”