Governor Cuomo’s first legislative priority for 2017 becomes a reality: More than 75 percent of New York’s families will be eligible for free tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools
Back in January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was joined by Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders to unveil an auspicious plan to make tuition free for college students at the state’s public colleges and universities. With the adoption of the 2017-2018 fiscal year budget last week, that plan has become a reality.
Part of the governor’s Middle Class Recovery Act includes the Excelsior Scholarship Program which will make all SUNY and CUNY schools tuition-free for families making $100,000 dollars a year or less, beginning this fall. That ceiling will increase to $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 in 2019.
Cuomo is calling the Excelsior Scholarship “a national first.”
“By making college at our world-class public universities tuition-free, we have established a national model for access to higher education, and achieved another New York first.”
The governor said a high school diploma is no longer adequate for many jobs today.
His office estimates that by 2024, 3.5 million jobs in New York will require an associate’s degree or higher. That is 420,000 more jobs than 2014.
“What we thought of high school 50 years ago is the way we should look at college now,” Cuomo said.
But the Excelsior Scholarship comes with a catch — any student who benefits from the program will be required to live and work in New York state for the same number of years for which they received free tuition. The Governor’s Office estimates that 84 percent of SUNY and CUNY graduates currently remain in New York after earning a degree.
The program covers tuition — which is currently $6,470 at four-year SUNY schools — but not fees, dorms, meal plans or textbooks. SUNY community college tuition is currently $4,366 a year, on average, and CUNY tuition is $6,330 a year for undergrads at the four-year schools.
“This will work to alleviate the enormous burden of college tuition on hundreds of thousands of middle class families in our state, and we’re thrilled for that,” said Marc Cohen, president of the SUNY Student Assembly.
However, the group that represents students at the university’s 64 campuses still has concerns about the details, most notably, the post graduation residency requirement for students and the fact that eligible students must be attending school full-time, averaging 30 credits a year.
Another caveat is that students must maintain the grade point average required by the program in which they are enrolled. Those requirements vary across disciplines, degree programs and across the SUNY system from campus to campus.
The FY 2018 budget provides $7.5 billion in support for higher education, a $448 million, or 6.3 percent, increase from last year. The tuition plan specifically will cost about $163 million, or 4.6 percent of the 7.5 billion for higher education. There also is funding included for operational needs to SUNY and CUNY, as well as funding for open educational resources including online textbooks.
“There is no child who should go to sleep tonight and say ‘I have great dreams but I don’t believe I can get a college education because mom and dad cannot afford it,’” Cuomo said.
There are an estimated 942,186 families with college-age students that would be eligible for the program, or about 75 percent of families statewide. Current SUNY and CUNY students will be eligible for the scholarship beginning in the fall 2017 semester. Graduate students are not eligible.
The number of students eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship varies by region. The Governor’s Office has provided the following estimates:
- Western New York has 68,712 families with college-age students, 78.8 percent of those are eligible, according to the Governor’s Office.
- New York City has 461,499 families with college-age students, with 84.3 percent eligible.
- Long Island has 112,890 families with college-age students, with 55.6 percent eligible.
- Hudson Valley has 92,333 families with college age students, with 63 percent eligible.
- Capitol Region has 44,108 families with college age students, with 74.9 percent eligible.
- Mohawk Valley has 24,845 families with college-age students, with 84.8 percent eligible.
- Finger Lakes has 55,747 families with college-age students, with 79.2 percent eligible.
- North Country has 18,542 families with college age students, with 84.8 percent eligible.
- Central New York has 37,922 families with college-age students, with 79.6 percent eligible.
- Southern Tier has 25,588 families with college-age students, with 81.2 percent eligible.
Assemblywoman Addie Jenne, D-Theresa, notes that her district is among those regions with the highest percentage of eligible families.
“College affordability is a major concern, and this innovative program will be a great benefit for local students and their families,” she said.
She said requiring students to remain in New York after graduation will help the state’s economy.
“I think it will be a tremendous incentive to help stem the brain drain from New York state and particularly the North Country,” she said.
Barbara Bowen, president of the union that represents faculty at the City University of New York, says she and her colleagues “welcome any measure that makes college more affordable and commend the governor on focusing national attention on the need for college tuition support.”
However, she added that “without increased public investment in CUNY, Excelsior cannot achieve its full potential.” An official statement from the Professional Staff Congress says the enacted state budget for FY2018 failed to provide the resources necessary to enable students to graduate on time. The union says nearly half of current CUNY undergraduates report not being able to take a course they need for their major.
The United University Professions, which represents faculty and staff at 29 SUNY campuses, took a more optimistic view of the program.
“The governor and the Legislature has made SUNY and public higher education a priority in the 2017-18 state budget, and this is a very good thing for our students, faculty and the future of the nation’s greatest public higher education system,” said Frederick Kowal, UUP’s president. “We look forward to working with the governor to implement his Excelsior Scholarship program, which we believe will go far in making a SUNY degree more accessible to thousands of New Yorkers.”
Kowal thanked legislators for reinstating maintenance of effort provisions that will provide SUNY campuses with annual funding that, at a minimum, matches the prior year’s allocation.
Those who voiced concerns about the Excelsior Scholarship program during budget hearings this winter questioned whether SUNY campuses can handle an influx of new students without hiring new professors, expanding classrooms or increasing maintenance and construction budgets.
“Campuses are still reeling from drastic state aid cuts to SUNY during the Great Recession, which is why the passage of the MOE is welcome and necessary,” said Kowal. “It will help campuses plan for the future.”