Free Public College Detailed

 The Problem 

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.  

With technology increasingly replacing jobs, the state must also assume responsibility for re-training as an obligation. 

Although Governor Cuomo has launched his Excelsior program for free tuition, ‚ÄúLess 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‚ÄĚ 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.¬†

 The Solution 

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 and lifetime training.  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.    

Fast Facts 


Written in 1894, the education provision in the New York Constitution is badly outdated.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.   

After World War II, jobs gradually became more¬†academically¬†demanding, requiring a more educated work force.¬† But¬†it wasn‚Äôt until the 1982 court decision in‚ÄĮBoard of Education, Levittown Union Free School District v Nyquist‚ÄĮthat¬†the state‚Äôs responsibility¬†was established for¬†providing a¬†sound basic education for every student.¬†Twenty-one years later, the Court of Appeals finally decided what ‚Äúsound basic‚ÄĚ means.¬†¬†The¬†2003 New York Court of Appeals decision‚ÄĮCampaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. State of New York¬†defined¬†this¬†as the “opportunity for a meaningful high school education, one which prepares them to function productively as civic participants.”‚ÄĮ In school districts unable to raise sufficient funds through tax revenue, the State must therefore intervene and provide additional funding to meet this¬†minimum standard.‚ÄĮ¬† In addition, this decision only covered schools in New York City, not the rest of the state.¬†

Following CFE, in 2007, the state legislature enacted reforms to the state aid system that promised students, not only in New York City, but throughout the state, billions of dollars in increased funding and a more equitable distribution of state aid. Since the recession of 2008, however, the state has not lived up to these commitments. There is a current case being litigated, NYSER v. State of New York, which is the follow up of the CFE decision to cover the entire state.   

However, even if NYSER succeeds, it is only focused on students up to high school, not postsecondary.¬†¬†In addition, no New York court has ever suggested a ‚Äúsound basic education‚ÄĚ includes postsecondary education, and even a better funded K-12 system with much better outcomes¬†is insufficient for the modern workforce.¬†¬†For instance, a¬†high school degree was¬†acceptable¬†for 72% of jobs in 1973, but only 36% of jobs in 2020 (see graph).¬†¬†¬†



The lack of citizens with a postsecondary education is a problem today.  According to a recent survey, sixty percent of employers report that candidates applying for jobs lack the necessary skills to fill available positions.   

There is every reason to expect this nearly 50-year trend to continue.  The fastest growing occupations -require postsecondary education (see graph).   


‚ÄúSTEM‚ÄĚ stands for¬†Science, Technology,¬†Engineering¬†and Mathematics¬†jobs.¬† ‚ÄúCommunity Services‚ÄĚ covers occupations that range from clergy to social workers to rehabilitation and mental health counselors.¬†¬†¬†

A recent article from NPR put this problem in a wider perspective: 

The United States currently has the ninth-most-educated workforce in the world, with 45 percent of young adults having earned some form of diploma or certificate. That’s according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which compiles detailed statistics on developed countries. The U.S. is above the OECD average, making modest progress over the past decade, even as tuition has risen steadily.¬†

“The most educated workforces in the world,” though, are smoking us. They are found in South Korea, where a whopping 67 percent of adults have some postsecondary education, and Japan and Canada (both at 58 percent).¬†

The same article quotes Andreas Schleicher, a top education analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, on public spending for college: 

“Many European countries provide free public higher education and in virtually all of these countries taxpayers benefit from this (in the sense that the additional tax revenues paid by better educated workers far outweigh the public expenditure on higher education).”¬†¬†

The right to a free college education was a major issue in the 2016 presidential election.  According to the BBC, “Bernie Sanders has set the bar when it comes to higher education policy in the modern Democratic Party, with his call for free college for all Americans funded by taxing Wall Street financial transactions. He points to the runaway costs of higher education as one of the driving forces behind growing income inequality in the US.   

Hillary Clinton supports a plan to make two-year community college free, but her higher education policies are more modest. She has called for lowering student loan interest rates, providing $17.5 billion to improve the quality of higher education and encouraging colleges to set affordable tuition rates that don’t require student loans.‚Ä̬†¬†

Clinton adapted much of Sanders‚Äô position when she won the nomination.¬† The¬†Democratic Platform for the 2016 election¬†states,¬†‚ÄúDemocrats are unified in their strong belief that every student should be able to go to college debt-free, and working families should not have to pay any tuition to go to public colleges and universities. We will also make community college free, while ensuring the strength of our Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions.‚Ä̬†¬†

New York State is far behind this more serious consideration of postsecondary education.  It’s no surprise that an education amendment from 1894 doesn’t include the right to higher education.  However, we no longer live in those times.  A modern and forward-thinking state constitution must address this state’s responsibility directly and give its citizens the right to an affordable, and if necessary, free, postsecondary education. 

Other States 

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. 


Section 1. Educational goals and duties. (1) It is the goal of the people to establish a system of education which will develop the full educational potential of each person. Equality of educational opportunity is guaranteed to each person of the state. 

The Illinois state constitution is high-minded but includes strong limits: 



A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities. 

The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services.  Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free. There may be such other free education as the General Assembly provides by law. 

The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education. 


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. 


‚Äú2016 Democratic Party Platform: July 21, 2016.‚Ä̬†¬†

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

‚ÄúFact Check: Bernie Sanders Promises Free College.¬† Will it Work?‚Ä̬†NPR,¬†February 17, 2016.¬†¬†

‚ÄúFree Tuition, For Some,‚ÄĚ by Eliza Shapiro,¬†Keshia¬†Clukey¬†and¬†Conor¬†Skelding,¬†Politico, May 3, 2017.¬†

‚ÄúThe Future of the U.S. Workforce: Middle Skill Jobs and the Growing Importance of Postsecondary Education,‚Ä̬†Achieve, September 2012.¬†

‚ÄúHow Cuts to Public Universities Have Driven Students Out of State,‚Ä̬†By Nick¬†Strayer,¬†The New York Times,¬†August.¬†26, 2016.¬†¬†

‚ÄúRecovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements¬†Through¬†2020,‚Ä̬†–Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, June 2013.¬†