Last week, New York State created a program that makes state college tuition-free for middle-class New Yorkers. The Excelsior Scholarship, as it is called, makes New York the first state to create such a program. The official page for it on the NY.gov page says “Under this groundbreaking program, more than 940,000 middle-class families and individuals making up to $125,000 per year will qualify to attend college tuition-free at all CUNY and SUNY two- and four-year colleges in New York State”.
Although I don’t really agree with the idea of government-paid tuition, I’m glad that the Excelsior Scholarship got passed. Why? Because this allows us to see what this kind of program does in practice. I want to see if this works.
The idea of free college tuition became a hot issue during the 2016 Democratic Primary, Senator Bernie Sanders was a large proponent of a national program that would make state colleges and universities tuition-free. As you could imagine, this rallied a base of young people, who flocked to the idea. This belief was soon picked up by many mainstream Democrats, and thus it was inevitable that some sort of program like this would be launched in a heavily-Democratic state.
This is one of the hallmarks of Federalism, one of the core ideas this country is built on. A balance of power exists between the Federal Government and the States. The 10th Amendment gives states the power to make their own laws regarding anything that isn’t explicitly stated in the Constitution. This allows the states to make their own decisions for the most part, while giving the Federal Government a fair amount of control over them. The Supremacy Clause effectively states that the Constitution and Federal Law trump (no pun intended) State law.
A careful balance of power must exist; if the Federal Government has complete control over all affairs, then that might allow them to make laws that harm certain states. Laws aren’t a one-size-fits-all deal, especially in a country as large and diverse as the United States. A law that might help the economy of New England might hinder states in the Midwest, for example. The residents of a state know what is best for their state.
States cannot be allowed to function as completely independent entities either, that creates its own plethora of problems. One, it makes us less of a country and more a loose union of countries, like what existed under the Articles of Confederation, the precursor to the Constitution. Without much of a central government, defense, international relations, interstate commerce, etc., are almost impossible to handle. Also, giving States all the power allows them to make decisions that are just wrong, like slavery. The Civil War was fought over State’s Rights, specifically their right to own slaves. Obviously that is an extreme example but it serves its point that a careful balance must exist.
One of the benefits of Federalism and the balance between State and Federal authority is that it allows States to act as laboratories for programs that may be controversial in other parts of the country. As long as what states do does not come into conflict with the Constitution, they can do as they please. Heavily-Democratic New York wanted to try out the practice of making college tuition-free, so they did. Now we can get an idea of the costs, the effects, and overall how viable it is.
The creation of a tuition-free college program in a populous state lets us see what happens when one of these popular yet slightly controversial programs gets rolled out on a small scale. If it is a resounding success, other states will be quick to adopt it, and we might even adopt it on a federal level. If it fails, then the damage is isolated to a single state.
Agree or disagree with the premise of the government paying for the tuition of college, the Excelsior Scholarship lets us find out if this program works.