NY becomes 1st state to OK free tuition at public colleges for eligible students

Breanna Edwards, The Root | 4/10/2017, 12:02 p.m.
You get a degree! Everybody gets a degree! New York just cleared the way to become the first state in ...

You get a degree! Everybody gets a degree! New York just cleared the way to become the first state in the United States to make tuition free for middle- and low-income students at two- and four-year public colleges.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo first introduced the plan in January, with lawmakers agreeing to include it in the state budget. Over the weekend, that budget was approved by the Assembly Saturday and by the Senate Sunday night. Cuomo is expected to officially sign the budget bills, according to CNN Money.

The plan will be phased in over three years, with tuition being free for residents who earn up to a specific income cap.

In the fall, undergrad students who attend State University of New York or City University of New York schools will be eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship if their families earn no more than $100,000 a year. That cap will lift to $110,000 the next year and ultimately reach up to $125,000 in 2019.

Eligible students will pay nothing for tuition, which averages about $6,470 annually at four-year institutions and about $4,530 at two-year colleges. However, students will still have to pay for room and board if they live on campus, which can add up to an extra $14,000 a year, CNN notes.

In addition, those eligible to receive the scholarship must take 30 credits a year—a requirement that has drawn criticism from some lawmakers as it excludes part-time students.

According to CNN Money, in the final proposal, Cuomo said the 30-credit requirement will be “flexible,” allowing students who may have difficulties to pause and restart the program, or take fewer credits one semester.

Per the initiative, students who do get the scholarship must live and work in New York after graduation for the same amount of years as they receive funding. Those who do choose to leave the state will have the scholarship converted into a loan.

“Today, college is what high school was—it should always be an option even if you can’t afford it,” Cuomo said in a statement.

The governor’s office estimated that the scholarship will cost some $163 million the first year, however, some lawmakers are skeptical. A whopping 200,000 students are expected to be eligible for the program once the ball gets rolling.

The scholarship is meant to complement other federal and state grants, as the report notes. Half of full-time SUNY students and more than 60 percent of CUNY students already do not pay for tuition because of Pell Grants or New York Tuition Assistance Grants. Those students will not be eligible for the scholarship.

Due to criticism from Republicans that the initial proposal excluded students at private colleges, the final budget also includes an additional $19 million to assist those private school students whose families earn less than the income cap. Those students can receive up to $3,000. Private schools that participate in the new financial assistance program for private schools would have to match that funding and promise not to raise those students’ tuition during their enrollment.