The Cost of a Free Education

 In Seriously?

This weekend, I will pour myself a glass of wine, fire up my laptop, and take out the file I tucked away a year ago, the one affectionately labeled “The Frickin FAFSA.” I will try to breathe deeply and remain calm while I log on to the nation’s financial aid website and try again this year to not screw it up…

The FAFSA is the bane of my existence, and I am certain I am not alone. Anything involving numbers from my tax form fills me with anxiety and stress. And the worst part of it all is this- after all the time I spend filling this out, my daughters will not receive very much financial aid.

Because we’re rich?  I’m afraid not. I am a public school teacher married to a dairy farmer. As such, we aren’t exactly laughing ourselves to the bank each week, but we do alright. In fact, that is the problem. We make just enough to be considered able to pay most of our child’s expenses, but not enough to do so without decimating our savings and incurring debt for both us and our child.

And so it was with no little degree of irritation that I read about Governor Cuomo’s statewide initiative to give prisoners in New York State the opportunity to earn a college degree by providing funding for college classes in the prisons of New York.

Of course, we’re not talking about giving prisoners an ivy league education, but a basic one.  According to the Feb 16 press release, “studies have shown that investing in college education for prisoners dramatically decreased recidivism rates while saving tax dollars on incarceration costs.” We must find a way to break this cycle. Leaving prison with a college degree will give these people a “second lease on life.” (http//

There is no question that recidivism is a serious problem. According to the report, 40% of the prisoners will wind up back in prison. Furthermore, since minorities comprise most of the population in prisons, an attempt to provide them with an education would address issues of inequity in minority education that have plagued our country for too long.

I’m sure a college education would help the prisoners and it may very well address the problem with recidivism in New York State. But what message does that send to the average middle class teacher/struggling writer/generally good person like me?

It sends this message: Live your life responsibly and you will get little to no help putting your child through college. Break the law and the state will pay for you to improve your future. Seriously?  My daughters are hard working, intelligent and responsible citizens; if a prisoner deserves a free education, then why shouldn’t they? The initiative sends a clear message that education is critical for success in today’s world.

If that is the case, then why doesn’t New York pay for all its young people, not just the ones who have broken the law? Although it would not be completely accurate to say that Canada provides free higher education to its young people, the government subsidizes much of the cost. This is not the case in America. According to CNN, the average debt for college related expenses an American student can expect is a crippling $35,200. (

According to Bernard Starr’s report in the Huffington Post, “30 percent of our college freshmen drop out in the first year and more than 40 percent don’t graduate–and not primarily because they can’t keep up academically. The runaway cost of higher education is pushing students out of the halls of learning.” In his article, he advocates for free higher education for all, calling attention to the fact that our nation’s youth will graduate with student loans that “will burden students and their families for decades.” (

I know there are no easy answers and the problem of recidivism is a complex one, but how can we justify providing a free college education for the law breaking portion of our population and denying it to those who abide by the law? If there was a way to give everyone the opportunity for a free college education, I would be wholeheartedly in support of this initiative, but we must not send the message that if you break the laws of our society, you will be rewarded by one of the greatest gifts of all…an education.

I tell you what….those prisoners better have to fill out the frickin FAFSA…


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  • Danielle C. Rhubart

    Thank you for your post and for including the facts regarding the reasoning behind Governor Cuomo’s proposed mandate.

    I write these comments not to disagree with your stance on the proposed mandate from the Governor. Rather, I’m concerned about the reactions we are having to this topic. It has encouraged us to play the deserving martyrs who have made it to where we are because of our own hard work. And how dare someone who hasn’t worked as hard as us deserve opportunities that are denied to us? I agree, but I also see discrimination and ignorance ingrained in these statements. If we refuse to acknowledge our own privileges, we do not have the right to say we deserve more than someone who is incarcerated. To demonstrate my point, I have documented 15 privileges from your post.

    Your children have a mother who:
    #1: can afford to drink wine, a symbol of middle class at minimum.
    #2: owns a laptop.
    #3: who does her taxes.
    #4: who fills out the FAFSA for them, and has the time to do so.
    #5: is computer literate and can use the internet (imagine filling out the fasfa without this basic skill).
    #6: has a savings account.
    #7: is financially able to assist them with their education.
    #8: has been through the higher education system and can provide advice/guidance through the process.
    #9: promotes higher education.
    #10: doesn’t have to worry that they will become involved in gang activity in their school as a protective mechanism.
    #11: can fill out the FAFSA form in a setting that is safe and comfortable, without fear of violence, eviction, food insecurity or utilities being shut off due to inability to pay.
    #12: is less likely to be charged for the same crime committed by a black woman because of her race.
    #13: has taught them that they can achieve a life that includes higher education.
    #14: hasn’t exposed them to negative influences like drug use, abuse, etc.
    #15: has shown them love and has supported their own social, emotional, physical and educational development.

    I believe that we should not be judged by our circumstances but how we react to them. However, I also acknowledge that for as much resilience I have, it was instilled in me by my parents. Without my parents, how would I know how to make the right decision in a difficult situation? Without all of the privileges listed below, where would your children be?

    We need to stop seeing people in prison as less deserving, lazy, and bad people, and start seeing them as products of broken systems (and of broken families) that need to be changed. That change starts at acknowledging our own privileges.

    • Jennifer Hanno

      Danielle, I want to thank you for logging onto this site and for taking the time to offer the other side of this controversial issue. After all, that is the purpose of this forum and I am glad you took the time to offer another view.

      You made many valuable points in your post, but the one that resonates most with me is that we must be careful to always keep in our mind the fact that our world is one of inequity. As you noted, so many young people in our world do not have the advantages that many of us take for granted. Our jails are often the result of this inequity and there is no denying that poverty and discrimination continue to plague our schools and our country. And, as you recognized, it is not just money. The value of a strong set of parents to provide a moral compass is, quite simply, beyond measure.

      I do not know how to best address the issue of recidivism and I am inclined to believe that education is the answer, but the underlying question remains: Do we fix the problem of inequity by creating a different inequity? Personally, I don’t believe education should be a privilege. I think all young people should have the opportunity to be educated if they so desire. And I don’t believe that prisoners who want to be educated are lazy; if they were lazy, they would not take advantage of the educational opportunity.

      Perhaps the real issue lies with the growing cost of tuition in our country. Why should education be a privilege? If Canada can subsidize higher education costs, why can’t we? Why should some get this opportunity and not others? Therefore, if we provide free education only for those in prison, aren’t we just creating another inequity? Education is surely part of the answer, but I think the problems go much deeper than this.

      You are right to remind us that many of us live in a world of privilege that others never see. We should be careful not to judge those in prison and make assumptions about them. Similarly, our legislators should not judge the middle class, making the assumption that they need little help in education their children. I guess it boils down to this: Is education a right? Or a privilege?

      Once again, thank you for weighing in on this topic.

  • Eric

    Forcing working America to foot the bill so criminals can earn a college degree, no matter the good intentions, is a terrible slap in the face to hard working, law abiding citizens. Only the most liberal ideologues, along with those who stand to profit financially from such “programs”, could ever believe this is a good idea.

  • Sara

    I’m glad you chose a topic such as this one for a couple of reasons. First of all, it has been something that so many have been debating both inside and out of school. An incredible number of people, to include myself, are outraged by the fact that New York State is offering to “reward” members of our society who have made a conscious decision not to obey the law. Do I understand the intent of this legislation? Of course….To give members of our prison system an option, other than breaking the law, when they are released. The goal is that previous prisoners will not become repeated offenders. I’m curious, however, as to how many will actually pursue a career in their field of study once they are released. Is it safe to say that more often than not, even those with some form of an education will become repeated offenders because quite simply, it is more profitable to break the law than it is to abide by it?

    This brings me to my next point. I have filled out that “Frickin FAFSA” four times and it never did all that much for me. Luckily, my parents were in a position where they could pay for some of my college debt and therefore, I was able to pay mine off rather quickly. This came with working two part-time jobs while I attended college full-time for 5 years. I was fortunate enough to be debt free, for the most part, by the time I was finished. Many of my closest friends cannot say the same. One friend, in particular, attended Syracuse University for accounting and is currently a CPA in Syracuse. She was able to graduate a semester early because of her diligence and hard work but still accumulated a large amount of debt for only three and a half years of college. This friend was unable to apply for or receive financial aid because both her and her parents, at the time, were Canadian citizens. If you are not a citizen of the U.S., regardless of how long you have lived here, you cannot receive financial aid. At age 28, my friend is tens of thousands of dollars in debt, which has and will impact her ability to purchase a home in the future. How is it that a smart, productive, law abiding citizen is a “slave” to her college loans and yet those who are not as driven are benefitting from their poor decisions? What message does this send our youth? Do we really want our children thinking that it’s okay to break the law because then they can get a free education? I’m sure it’s not quite that simple but when it boils down to it, this is the message we are sending…

    • Jennifer Hanno

      I know what you mean, Sara. It’s the middle class that gets the short end of the stick, unfortunately. You brought up a really interesting point when you raised this question: How do we know they will get a job in the field they have a degree in? Unemployment rates aren’t great, and I would think that probably their past as a felon might work against them even with a degree. There is still a high probability that they will revert to their criminal behavior. But a bigger issue is the message this initiative sends to the law abiding middle class, a group of people who are struggling with rising college costs. I do understand that the money to fund this initiative likely comes from a separate source, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

  • Jerry

    I agree with a number of your comments in your latest post…especially the FAFSA reference. FAFSA is the education system’s term for “headache.”

    As for the free education issue, I think that’s just a stupid idea. Granted, I understand the intended outcome – reduce recidivism rates, provide an opportunity that the prisoners might not otherwise have – but don’t take my tax dollars (detailed in the aforementioned FAFSA) and use it to give a free education to prisoners.

    If the Gov wants to “fix” a system that needs fixing, then his administration should look at the Welfare system in NYS. I think there is a higher recidivism rate for the serial abusers of this system than there is with the prison system…


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