Free College Tuition: a new reality in USA


Free college tuition — it’s back!martin-luther-king-anger-quote1

There has been a continuing debate as to whether college education is a privilege or a right of citizenship. In an age in which demand for unskilled labor is fading, will people without college be employable in 10 or 20 years?

The US has taken one position on this; Europe and the Commonwealth countries, the opposite. Today, it’s possible for a US family to put four children through college in Europe at the price of sending one to college in the US. For Europeans in several countries, college is free.

In the “golden age” of the US economy after World War II, college was either free or very inexpensive in the US. When I was in high school, City College of New York and the University of California still were free to residents.  Ronald Reagan eliminated free tuition in California.  New York was earlier.

On February 7th, San Francisco because the first city in the current era to offer free community college education.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced at a press conference yesterday that, starting next fall, community college will be tuition-free for all San Francisco residents through the City College of San Francisco.

As first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco would become the first city in the nation to make community college free to all city residents. Any student who has lived in San Francisco for at least one year – regardless of income – is eligible.

“To California residents who are living in San Francisco, your community college is now free,” Lee said at the press conference. (1)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a plan in January to make all state, city and community colleges free to residents. There is now a bi-partisan budget deal to make that a reality.

Budget negotiators struck a deal late Friday that could make New York the largest state to offer tuition-free public higher education.

The $163 billion state budget agreement includes the Excelsior Scholarship, which covers tuition for any New Yorker accepted to one of the state’s community colleges or four-year universities, provided their family earns less than $125,000 a year. (2)

Interesting question: Why would you want to live in an expensive state like New Jersey when your kids can attend college for free next door? Or leave San Francisco for anywhere?



  1. Zack Friedman, “Free College: San Francisco Joins New York With Tuition-Free Plan,” Forbes, 7 Feb. 2017.
  2. Danielle Douglas-Gabrielle, “New York set to become first state to offer free tuition at public four-year colleges,” The Washington Post, 8 April 2017.


Best and Worst States for Business


24/7 Wall Street has published a lengthy article assessing the business climate in the %) total-county-population-change-2016.pngUS states.  It’s a fairly comprehensive analysis, looking at 50 different criteria, including taxes, labor force characteristics, infrastructure, etc.

The bottom five states are fairly predictable.  The top five aren’t, including political polar opposites.

Best five states for business:

  1. Utah
  2. Massachusetts
  3. Idaho
  4. Colorado
  5. North Dakota

Utah, Massachusetts and Colorado benefit in particular from a  highly educated labor force.  That’s important for the technology sector that’s likely to drive economic growth in the future.  Idaho and North Dakota are pro-business in the sense of having weak unions and low wages.

Massachusetts is the one state in the Northeast that isn’t losing population.

Five worst states for business, starting from the bottom:

  1. Louisiana
  2. Mississippi
  3. West Virginia
  4. Maine
  5. Pennsylvania

The bottom states share a common lack of an educated work force.  Fewer than 1/4 of workers in Louisiana and Mississippi have bachelors degrees, and the percent employed in science and technology is in the very low single digits.  West Virginia and Maine share these problems, just to less of an extreme.  The local economies suffer from high poverty rates.  Given the trend to robotize unskilled labor positions, the future in these states is scary.  All five states are losing population.

Pennsylvania represents a special case of self-inflicted problems.  The state has a poorly maintained highway infrastructure which is a drag on business growth.  Pennsylvania really is bipolar.  There are highly educated nuclei in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and State College, and then there’s everywhere else.  It’s the modern version of Lincoln’s “house divided against itself”.


Land of Opportunity, Revisited


In a post earlier this month, I commented on the declining mobility of American society.  Why that matters is that job growth in the recovery from the Great Recession of 2008 has been uneven. So has growth in personal income.  Is where you are the best place to be?

The areas with the highest rate of job growth, for the most part, simply aren’t where the people are.

The five largest states in terms of population are (Census, July 1, 2016 estimate)

  1. California  39,250,017
  2. Texas  27,862,596
  3. Florida  20,612,439
  4. New York  19,745,289
  5. Illinois 12,801,539

The five top states for job growth are

  1. North Dakota  20.7%
  2. Texas  15.3%
  3. Utah  13.6%
  4. Colorado  11.8%
  5. Washington  9.8%

Washington is the anomaly.  There has been sufficient migration, largely from California, such that despite growth, the unemployment rate has increased.

If we rank the states in actual numbers of jobs gained, the big winners are

  1. Texas  1,612,800 jobs
  2. California  1,134,100
  3. New York  644,800
  4. Florida  531,100
  5. Massachusetts  272,000

For every winner, there’s a loser.  The five states that have lost the most jobs since the Great Recession are

  1. Wyoming   -5.2%
  2. Mississippi  -2.3%
  3. New Mexico -2.2%
  4. Alabama  -1.9%
  5. Connecticut  -1.6%

Of course, percentages don’t tell the whole story.  Wyoming has a smaller economy than Connecticut, so a loss of 15,400 jobs is a high percentage of total jobs in Wyoming than a loss of 27,300 jobs is in Connecticut.

Job growth doesn’t correspond to income growth.  Texas shows high job growth spi0616coupled recently with declining per capita income.  Maine has a declining population but is showing good per capita income growth, in part due to a shortage of workers.

In some states, there’s a clear logic to people staying put.  In California, the out-migration is probably more due to housing costs than jobs, even though it will make it harder for employers to keep jobs filled.  However, there are good reasons for people to be leaving the deep South and areas of the Plains and West.  Mississippi is a particular problem as the data I’ve posted shows that they don’t fund social services, don’t fund schools and don’t do an adequate job of providing work for residents.

What we don’t know is the size of the Gray Economy in each state.  That’s employment that’s off the books — that people try to hide from the IRS.  It exists and is potentially large.  A poster child for that is a news stand in NYC that was reporting $30,000 in annual sales and conducting $800,000 in off the books drug sales annually.  (Sadly, I read this years ago in The New York Times and can’t find the citation for it.)



Land of Opportunity?


From the first settlement of America, there was always the option to pack up, move and start over.  Everyone did it, from immigrants to future presidents (for example, Abe Lincoln).  Most of the time, migration was driven by the search for a better life (the westward wagon trains of the 1800s, the Gold Rush of 1848), sometimes for religious freedom (the Mormon migration to Utah territory), or sometimes by sheer necessity (the Okie migration from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s).  In every case, migration was an important option.

Migration promotes commerce.  People who move spend money on transportation and housing.  Their old homes become starter homes for new families.  Real estate  agents make commissions on sales.  Furniture companies sell to the home buyers.  1479417249793

To some extent, this is no longer true.  When the oil fields in the Dakotas opened a decade ago, some people moved, but not the masses of the past.  Some states (e.g., Maine) no longer have enough working age residents to perform available jobs, but no one is moving to take those positions.  Maine is losing people at a steady pace.

The numbers shown are incomplete.  What we can’t see, because the government doesn’t  report it, is migration outside the US.  Estimates range from 3 million to 9 million Americans living outside the US.  How many are leaving each year?  We don’t know.

I know of a doctor who is sending his children to college outside the US.  Will they return?  I know of a waiter is is moving to Brazil after graduation from school here.  I have former coworkers who live in Europe and have done so for years. I know one teacher who now works quite happily in Saudi Arabia.  Financial publications are advising Americans to retire to Central America, where the lower cost of living makes Social Security go much further than it does in the US.

There are a lot of reasons for emigration from the US:  better job opportunities, better access to health care, better social services, lower cost of education, lower cost of living.

Some countries, notably Canada, have restricted the ability of Americans to migrate there.

The general sense is that Americans have become less mobile, although that might not be true.

  • It could be that modern adventurers are leaving during their college years and the government simply doesn’t know that. The modern counterparts of Sam Houston and Kit Carson have left the building.  How does their absence change our culture?
  • Or conversely, as some analysts seem to believe, people have given up on trying to better themselves.  They no longer believe in the dream.  How does that change our culture?

What you need to know:

Reduction in mobility within the US is going to be a drag on the real estate market.  The volume of sale transactions will decline, and will affect businesses that rely on those transactions.  Conversely, as people stay in homes longer, home improvement business will expand.



  2. Sullivan, Bob, “Why Aren’t Americans Moving Anymore?”  6 January 2017.
  3. von Koppenfels, Amanda Klekowski, “Americans Abroad: A Disillusioned Diaspora?” Migration Policy Institute, 29 July 2015.