Monday, April 28, 2014

Escape from New York

Yesterday’s post on indentured servitude drew some scolding from people who thought the metaphor was overdrawn.  Then, I read this.

James Skoufis, a Democratic Assemblyman in New York State, is proposing making CUNY and SUNY tuition-free for students who fulfill two conditions:

1. They have to perform 125-250 hours of community service per year.  This seems fine.

2. They must agree to stay in New York for five years after graduation.

The “indentured servitude” thing is starting to look more accurate.  Students who can’t afford private college won’t be allowed to move out of New York State for five years.  (If they do, then the tuition waivers they received will suddenly turn into loans.)

Wow.  Just, wow.

I assume that Assemblyman Skoufis means well, but this is a spectacularly bad idea, particularly for traditional-aged students.

I’ll start with the basics.  The early and middle twenties are some of the most mobile years, especially for college graduates.  Those are the years when they try to break into new career fields, find spouses or life partners, and make their way in the world.  Most of the people with whom I went to college were in different states (or countries) at 27 than at graduation, myself included.  We went where the opportunity was.  That’s what ambitious young people do.  And as a society, we desperately need them to do that.  That’s where breakthroughs come from.

I understand the impulse, from a legislative perspective, to want to capture the gains from education locally.  After all, you helped underwrite them.  But state-level protectionism isn’t going to lead anywhere good economically.  If New York tries this, I could imagine other states following suit.  Before long, peasants would be tied to the land all across the country.  How this will help aggregate talent, I have absolutely no idea.

You know what else ambitious young people do, when they aren’t chasing medical school slots or dream jobs?  They couple up.  I can only imagine the ugly conversations.  “Honey, I’d love to come live with you, but I’d need a dowry to pay off my loans.”  I’d like to think that we’ve moved beyond the “dowry” years.  The social interest served by coercing sub-optimal coupling, I can’t even imagine.  And we’d be sending an interesting message to young people: marry interracially if you want, marry your own gender if you want, but whatever you do, don’t marry anyone from Jersey!  That’s over the line!

(For the record, TW hails from the Garden State.  I will defend New Jersey’s honor.)

New York is a biggish state, but it’s finite.  If you’re from, say, Syracuse, you may well face a choice between a rough local job market and moving away.  New York City is an amazing place, but it’s not for everyone.  And outside of the NYC area, many of the smaller economies aren’t necessarily thriving.  Forcing someone to remain in a languishing region when they could have landed a productive position in Boston or D.C. or San Francisco doesn’t serve any useful purpose.  

It can be difficult for a locality or a state to invest in education only to watch talent leave.  But tying talent down is not the answer.  Pushing other states and localities to invest, too, is.  

Higher education should not reinforce provincialism.  I fully agree with reducing the debt burden on college students and new graduates.  But cutting down their futures to what fits within the state lines is not the way to do it.  If a new graduate with a great idea for a startup wants to escape from New York and find fortune in Palo Alto, let her.  And if a nerdy kid from Rochester somehow meets and falls in love with a Jersey Girl, back off.  Surely, somewhere, you can find a real problem to solve.  Maybe you could start with SUNY’s appropriation...