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Opinion: In-State Tuition Should Not be Offered to Students From Puerto Rico

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Raymond Weiss

     There are many well-intentioned public policy ideas out there. For instance, this past election, we heard Bernie Sanders promise free college tuition, and touted higher education as a basic human right. This claim sparked a series of public debates regarding higher education and whether it is or is not a basic human right. The question that never gets addressed in these well-meaning policy debates is: “Who is going to pay for it?”

In the wake of Hurricane Maria, New York has promised in-state college tuition for Puerto Rican and Virgin Island students at SUNY and CUNY schools. While this effort is well-intentioned, there are real concerns to be had with it, and these concerns all circle around who is going to bear the burden. By the end of the article I may sound like a broken record, but these kinds of questions are essential to fully understand any given policy debate, and make an informed decision about which direction to take.

      First, it is important to understand how the SUNY system is funded. It is funded through state tax support, which is made possible because of New York state taxpayers. New York was ranked dead last in Forbes’ “Best and Worst States for Taxes in 2016” (Carlyle, 2016) because of its high state and local tax burden (approximately 12.7% in 2016, according to Forbes). Like other public universities, the SUNY system gives in-state taxpayers a break on tuition by offering in-state rates. To offer in-state tuition to Puerto Ricans and Virgin Island students, someone has to pay for it. Since Puerto Rican and Virgin Island residents do not pay New York state taxes, it certainly won’t be those residents who pay the cost in this situation. The answer to the question “who is going to pay for it?” is New York taxpayers, who already live in a state with high taxes.

      Well intentioned efforts to assist in times of tragedy can also sometimes have detrimental effects on the very people these aid efforts are designed to help. Disaster relief groups have been known to call the wave of physical donations, such as excess teddy bears or old clothes, “The Second Disaster” (Fessler, 2013). This tuition announcement could have the unintended side effect of drawing Puerto Rican and Virgin Island college students –the best and brightest of their communities– away from home permanently, straining their families and their communities that they leave behind. Puerto Rico already faces a declining population, driven primarily by residents moving to the mainland US (Krogstad, Starr & Sandstrom, 2017). It was already expected that residents who could move after the disaster would move, and providing this incentive will only draw more people away from Puerto Rico, making recovery even more difficult. It would be impossible to put a dollar sign on the costs associated with an increased rate of relocations away from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. However, the answer to the question “who is going to pay for it?” has another answer as well: the people who stay behind.

     Anytime someone hears the words “free” or “reduced price” in the context of public policy, a little light bulb should go off in the back of their head. An informed observer should ask the question repeated here in this article several times; “who is going to pay for it?” “Free” college tuition for all Americans would come at a cost to all American taxpayers in one form or another. “Reduced price” tuition for Puerto Rican and the Virgin Islands may come at a cost not only to resident New York taxpayers, but perhaps even the very residents this effort seeks to help.

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