COLUMN: Glamour over substance in policy

When the concept of “free college” began being promoted in New York, I wrote a column pointing out that the concept was not only misleading but also purely political.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo brought in Sen. Bernie Sanders, fresh off his run for the White House, made it part of his budget offensive and pushed it through using his political strength.

Let’s start here: Increasing access to college has never been, nor will it ever be, troublesome to taxpayers or voters. Programs don’t become problematic until they become an expense or burden passed down to taxpayers — many of whom already are paying for college themselves.

The Excelsior Scholarship was misleading because it presented itself as “free college,” when in reality it was more comparable to a college coupon code — redeemable for “free” tuition at state schools. In reality, the discount was roughly 30 percent of the real cost of college.

Officials haven’t been able to identify how many benefited from the first year of the program. The deadline for signing up to take advantage this year was mid-July but numbers still aren’t clear as to who did.

Now, news surfaces that officials at Empire State Development, which produced and paid for the ad campaign associated with this program, never purchased the rights to post this ad online.

In the Politico piece, one lawmaker called it a “curious choice given teenage media habits.”

The media buyer who examined the public records associated with this program noted that New York state spent $5 million in airtime for an ad that could only be placed on television.

This information wasn’t readily available. Politico obtained the information through a FOIL request, which highlights the issue here. There wasn’t anyone within the administration who wanted this information out there.

I can hear it now, though. Someone is reading this, asking themselves, “So what, Josh? What difference does it make that the state only put ads on TV?”

ESD officials had a simple answer: The 30-second ad “cannot be posted or published as we have no talent rights to this advertisement beyond TV usage.”

Nearly every part of the application process for colleges — both state and private — is digital. Some institutions are more digital than others, but even basic FAFSA forms are now “digitally” delivered.

As for those teenage media habits: Pew said in 2015 that 92 percent of teens report going online daily; 24 percent say they are online “almost constantly.”

It all begs the question: Why spend so much on TV advertising if the evidence overwhelmingly shows that your target demographic is not going to see it?

The answer seems to be simple. Politics.

Combining the factors of state officials being hesitant to share data from the Excelsior Scholarship’s first year in operation and an ad campaign developed with tax dollars — without the target demographic for that program in mind — adds up to a disappointing program.

The United States Election project breaks down voter turnout among age groups and historically speaking 18- to 29-year-olds make up the smallest percentage of “voters.”

Those 45-and-older account for an overwhelming majority of “voter turnout.”

You know what else they represent an overwhelming majority of, according to the good folks at Nielsen? Television viewers.

It’s not to say there aren’t 18- to 29-year-olds watching TV, or being positively informed by this ad campaign, but the evidence doesn’t align with the notion that “getting the word out to those who need it most” was high on the priority list of state officials putting it together.

Luckily for Gov. Cuomo, or perhaps intentionally, he did not appear in this ad campaign, which ran for two months in television spots across New York. The handling of this ad, though, borders on a campaign level move.

The only real question left is which seat is he really running for as he continues to publicize the glamour of his policy over the actual substance?

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