Last week, New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy came out with a proposal for free college. Here at Blue Jersey, we had a response to Murphy’s plan: Brian Everett argued that Murphy’s plan needs to be tweaked to include a residency requirement. But is that really a good idea? Too often, the negative effects of restrictions on policies are born by the most at-risk populations. A residency program carries that same risk.
Universal proposals, like free college for all, are at the center of Bernie Sanders-styled progressivism. That form of economic populism leverages the popularity of universal programs to increase support for at-risk communities. It has an impressive history; programs such as Social Security as example of its success. The logic is at the heart of the current battle over Medicare-for-All and Single Payer approaches to health care. These types of programs are also difficult to enact at the state level. But it’s possible to make state-run higher education institutions free — putting it at the center of the local progressive agenda.
But these programs also run the risk of adding restrictions that are of little consequence to a wider base of constituents, but disproportionately affect the most at-risk users of the program. Take the example of “asset tests” for SNAP Benefits (formerly known as food stamps):
In Pennsylvania, then-Governor Corbett’s enacted such an “asset test” on the SNAP. The test was designed to keep those with significant wealth but little income from abusing SNAP by passing the income test and receiving benefits. But that’s not what happened:
During the first year of the test, nearly 4,000 households lost or were denied benefits because they had too many financial resources, state figures showed.
In that same time, though, many more people – some 111,000 households – were denied benefits simply because they failed to provide proper documentation for the asset test.
Advocates for the poor said that by weeding out a relatively small number of people with too many assets, the state made getting food stamps so complicated that deserving low-income people became inundated by paperwork and lost their chance to hold on to precious benefits.
Rather than exclude households that were taking advantage of the system, the asset test put an additional burden on the most at-risk families. Thankfully, that test is no longer in effect in Pennsylvania, but the lesson stands. Restrictions on programs need to be analyzed and understood by the burden they put on those most at-risk. The worry with the residency requirement connected to free college is the same; does it undermine the most vulnerable students’ futures?
Dr Sara Goldrick-Ras, perhaps the country’s preeminent scholar on the risks and challenges of vulnerable students in higher education, sharply criticized the New York residency requirement for exactly this reason. The whole thing is worth a read, but here is an excerpt:
New York doesn’t need to do this in order to reap a strong return on its investment. About 80% of New Yorkers will stay in the state anyway and New York is going to gain plenty of new residents by offering college for free. Yes — brain gain is the way to deal with brain drain —attract more people, and create a generation of grateful New Yorkers who will stay in state in order to give this opportunity to their kids. Trying to trap and punish the 20% or so who work or even more outside New York because they have to costs more than its worth. That 20% will be among the most vulnerable people — most likely they will be the sort who were the first in their families to attend college (and didn’t understand this requirement), or people who face more difficulty finding jobs in New York because of narrower social networks, job opportunities, or even labor market discrimination.
She lays out 5 unexpected consequences of the residency requirement: 1) incentivizing unemployment for those who can’t find jobs but can’t move because it would trigger crippling debt 2) reduce income for those students who lack the freedom to move 3) discouraging service such as the military, Peace Corps or Americorps 4) discouraging talent development 5) cutting against family ties – people who have to leave New York to take care of an ailing family member will trigger debt. She argues that the marginal state benefits, bureaucracy needed to enforce such a requirement, and negative impact on students make such a requirement bad policy.
The lesson here is to tread carefully. There’s a wider political discussion to be had about whether such a restriction is good politics. But requiring those in Murphy’s free college plan to remain in the state runs serious risks of undermining the very students who most-need access to higher education.