Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled his first proposal for the 2017 legislative agenda: making college tuition free at all SUNY and CUNY colleges for middle-class students.
Under the proposal — which requires legislative approval — students whose families make less than $125,000 a year would qualify to attend college tuition-free at all public colleges and universities in New York state, if they are accepted.
The proposed Excelsior Scholarship program would cost an estimated $163 million a year once fully phased in.
Cuomo made the announcement Tuesday at LaGuardia Community College in Queens alongside Vermont U.S. Sen Bernie Sanders, who pitched a similar idea in his presidential campaign last year, which boosted his popularity among college students.
“A college education is not a luxury — it is an absolute necessity for any chance at economic mobility, and with these first-in-the-nation Excelsior Scholarships, we’re providing the opportunity for New Yorkers to succeed, no matter what zip code they come from and without the anchor of student debt weighing them down,” Cuomo said. “New York is making a major investment in our greatest asset — our people — and supporting the dreams and ambitions of those who want a better life and are willing to work hard for it. I am honored to have the support of Senator Sanders, who led the way on making college affordability a right, and I know that together we can make this a reality with New York leading the way once again.”
The program would require participating students to be enrolled at a SUNY or CUNY two- or four-year college full-time. The initiative will cover middle-class families and individuals making up to $125,000 through a supplemental aid program. That would make about 940,000 households eligible for the program.
The plan would be phased in over three years, beginning for New Yorkers making up to $100,000 a year in the fall of 2017, increasing to $110,000 in 2018, and reaching $125,000 in 2019.
Currently, the Tuition Assistance Program or TAP provides nearly $1 billion in grants to college students statewide and New York is one of only two states in the nation that offers this type of entitlement. Under the proposed Excelsior Scholarship program, eligible students would still receive TAP and any applicable federal grants. Additional state funds would cover the remaining tuition costs for incoming or existing eligible students.
Cuomo’s free degree program would create an incentive for students to graduate on time. In 2013, only 38.7 percent of students attending a four-year public university and roughly 8.5 percent attending a two-year public college in New York completed their degrees on time.
The average annual tuition at four-year SUNY and CUNY schools is about $6,400 for bachelor’s degree programs and about $4,500 for an associate’s degree. By mandating that students be enrolled full-time, New York’s free tuition program will work to improve graduation rates and alleviate the heavy burden of student debt by encouraging more students to graduate on time in two and four years.
In 2015, the average student loan debt in New York was $29,320.
Sen. Ken LaValle, the chairman of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee, said he plans to “thoroughly” examine the proposal.
“In my tenure as chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, it has always been my top priority to make higher education as affordable as possible, a sentiment that has also been strongly supported by the Senate Republican Conference,” LaValle said.
The Assembly’s Higher Education Committee Chair, Deborah Glick, says the cost estimate of $163 million begs the question: if it costs so little, why haven’t we done it before? She is concerned about funding for the SUNY and CUNY system if and when the policy goes into effect.
“Naturally, we have to ensure that both SUNY and CUNY have the capacity to continue to provide a quality education,” Glick said. “This means that we need to ensure that they have adequate financial support. We have not provided as much operating support as we should have over the last number of years. Nonetheless, this could be a win for all New Yorkers and I look forward to seeing the details as the governor provides them.”
The New York Public Interest Research Group notes that, while tuition is not the only cost associated with earning a college degree, expanding tuition assistance is a “great step.” Like Glick, NYPIRG also wants to know how the program will work.
“We have not seen the details of the plan, and in policymaking, the details are what matter most,” reads a statement issued by the group, which depends on college students for much of its organizing, research and activism. “We look forward to examining the governor’s plan and urge the state to continue curbing the rising costs of college in New York.”