In his first proposal of the new year, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced a new program that will make public universities tuition-free in the state.
Called the Excelsior Scholarship, the program will make all higher education institutions in the City University of New York (CUNY) and the State University of New York (SUNY) free to attend for all New York State residents making under $125,000 per year—a change that affects almost 940,000 middle class New Yorkers. The numbers mean that the 80% of New York’s citizens who fall under $125,000 annual income would no longer be financially barred from attending the largest public school system in the nation.
Looking to alleviate both student loan debt and financial barriers to college education among the middle class, Gov. Cuomo’s proposal comes on the heels of a call on Congress by President Obama to make two-year community colleges free to students. Under the Excelsior Scholarship, both two- and four-year programs would be tuition-free at CUNY and SUNY institutions. Room and board, books, and other fees, however, would be the responsibility of the student.
U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. approved the decision, saying that the move is “expanding the doors of opportunity for New Yorkers,” and pointing out that even though legislation has been introduced in both chambers of Congress, no progress has been made on the topic.
The program may be free to students, but it will not be free to taxpayers. The Excelsior Scholarship program, according to one estimate, would cost about $163 million per year, but some estimates say it’s unclear what the total cost would actually be. With CUNY running about $4350 for in-state tuition and SUNY at $6470, even if only 100,000 people attended SUNY under the program, the tuition costs alone would be $647 million.
In order for the program to begin this fall as Cuomo plans, he’ll need to get it past the New York legislature in Albany. While he has the support of both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton—Sanders included free tuition in his Presidential campaign and Clinton had also proposed a similar program—the lawmakers in the state legislature may not be so excited to take on such a large debt. Neither the Senate Speaker John J. Flanagan or Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie had not responded to requests for comment by the time the proposal was released to the public.
Unpaid student loans became an issue during the 2016 Presidential campaign, as both Sanders and Clinton cited mounting student loan debt as a major problem for middle class Americans across all age demographics.
Sanders used Europe as an example of how free tuition could be done in the United States; some economists, however, disagreed with the plan. Europe’s programs work, they say, because of higher taxes—something Americans are usually opposed to—and lower college enrollment. According to some experts, the best way to offer free tuition is to target the students who need it on a case-by-case basis, instead of “spend[ing] money to pay for everybody’s public education.”
If the proposal does make it through the legislature, Cuomo hopes to begin tuition-free public education by the fall of 2017.