In the Modern Economy, a High School Degree No Longer Cuts It

The right to a free postsecondary education has been a major part of the presidential debate. New York State should be at the forefront of this discussion, but we are way behind.

The New York Constitution’s education language was written in 1894, when an eighth-grade education was assumed to be adequate to get a job. This was also a time when the state passed a law that allowed communities to set up separate schools for children of African-American descent. (In 1900, the state passed another law requiring integrated schools.)

It was also a time when New York Grandee and future Nobel Prize winner Elihu Root was a major opponent of the unpopular concept of woman’s suffrage.  In fact, from this distant era, it took until 1982 before the New York courts determined the Constitution required even a high school education.

In today’s world, where 65 percent of all jobs will soon require some form of postsecondary education and people change jobs every 4.6 years, New York’s citizens must have the right to more than a high school diploma.

Although Governor Cuomo has launched his Excelsior program for free tuition, “Less than 5 percent of current undergraduate students at the State and City University systems will be eligible for the scholarship, according to rough estimates present at the SUNY Board of Trustees” according to Politico.  While the Excelsior program may be laudable, it is not a systemic solution to a massive and growing need for postsecondary education.

We need a new constitutional amendment on education to make New York the first state in the country that guarantees the right to a free college or technical education.  Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has set the bar high, and whether it’s funded as Sanders suggested by taxing Wall Street transactions or another method entirely, New York should be the first state to enshrine it in our constitution.

What do you think?

The 1967 Constitutional Convention’s Proposed Legislative Amendment on Education attempted to replace the 1894 Amendment. The Amendment “…requires the legislature to establish and define a system of higher education encompassing public and private schools by programs which may include free tuition, grants, fellowships and scholarships.

Read More


Article XI, New York Constitution
Section 1 (The text unchanged from the 1894 Constitution)

Text of Section 1:
Common schools
The legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.


Written in 1894, the education provision in the New York Constitution is badly outdated.  That was the same year the state passed a law that allowed communities to set up separate schools for African-Americans; it was widely believed that women shouldn’t have the right to vote; and an eighth grade education was legitimately considered more than sufficient preparation for a job.

Read More

Perhaps the most encompassing constitutional language, and maybe the best model, comes from Montana, which does not presume the right to education is limited to children. However, none of them has committed to a right to a free higher education.

Read More

2016 Democratic Party Platform: July 21, 2016.”

Economic New Release, Bureau of Labor Statistics, December 8, 2015.

Fact Check: Bernie Sanders Promises Free College.  Will it Work?” NPR, February 17, 2016.

Free Tuition, For Some,” by Eliza Shapiro, Keshia Clukey and Conor Skelding, Politico, May 3, 2017.

The Future of the U.S. Workforce: Middle Skill Jobs and the Growing Importance of Postsecondary Education,” Achieve, September 2012.

How Cuts to Public Universities Have Driven Students Out of State,” By Nick Strayer, The New York Times, August. 26, 2016.

Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020,” –Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, June 2013.