Tuesday, January 03, 2017

An Open Letter to Governor Christie

Dear Governor Christie,

Governor Cuomo is proposing free public college for most of New York’s families.  

He’s showing you up.

Are you gonna stand for that?

He has a good idea.  It’s a variation on Tennessee’s program. It’s a “last dollar” program, which is a smart way for a state to eliminate tuition as a barrier for most students without eliminating federal aid for tuition.  It also provides an escape valve for campuses if a future governor decides to cut or eliminate funding. Yes, there’s paperwork, and I’m not a huge fan of means-testing in this context, but it’s a huge step forward for access to higher education.  Some of the major news outlets have painted it as a statement by a blue state, but that doesn’t do justice to Tennessee.  Access to higher education should be a bipartisan idea.  

As you know, New Jersey exports a distressingly high number of talented high school students to out-of-state colleges, including those in New York. It’s struggling to grow economically, and its number of 18 year olds is declining.  Some students who go away to college come back, but many don’t.  The cohort of future entrepreneurs isn’t replenishing as quickly as the state needs.

Now Maine is offering in-state tuition to Jersey students, and New York will probably keep more of its own.  “Free” is good bait.  More of our best may leave, and we stand to import fewer.

I’m thinking there’s an opportunity here.

New Jersey doesn’t have oil, and in most of the state, land isn’t cheap. With the highest population density in the country, cheap land isn’t gonna happen.  We can’t compete on the low end.

But we can compete on the high end.  In fact, given the levels of human capital already here, the state could thrive if it chooses to.  And all it would have to do is play to its most endearing stereotype: defiance.  

We got yer free tuition right here.  Bigger and better.

Governor Christie, here’s your chance to go out with a bang.  Tell Governor Cuomo you’ll see his bet, and raise it.  Go for free tuition -- ideally with a much higher income cap, to reflect the reality of the cost of living here -- and greatly reduced tuition for out-of-state students.  Use the universities to recruit hungry young talent from other states.  

Other states are reducing their commitment to higher education, and early signs are that the Trump administration has a very different perspective than the Obama administration.  That means the rest of the country is leaving talent on the table.  Here’s a chance to zig when everyone else zags. Wisconsin is eviscerating its system; its best students are ripe for the taking.  Talent is trading at record lows; now is the time to buy. Do you know why Dell computers started in Texas?  Because Michael Dell attended UT-Austin.  What if the next Michael Dell attends Rutgers?   

What if he attends SUNY instead?  You see the danger.

Free community college would upgrade the skills of the folks who already live here.  Very cheap out of state university tuition would recruit hungry young talent from other states.  The combination would be incredibly powerful.  And it would show up the people who think that access to higher education is just a Democrat thing.  It would be contrarian investing on a massive scale.  The payoff would last for generations.  It could be your legacy.  A grand bipartisan gesture with far-reaching consequences, broad political appeal, and more than a hint of attitude.  Dude.  You got this.

New York has thrown down the gauntlet.  Governor Christie, are you gonna stand for that?