Poised to Make History, New York on Cusp of Tuition-Free College

The plan "shows the difference that government can make," said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo


New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had unveiled the proposal in January alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and it's now on the verge of passing. (Photo: Joe Brusky/flickr/cc)

New York is on the verge of becoming the first state in the nation to offer tuition-free state and city colleges for low- and middle-income students.

The plan is part of the budget the Democrat-controlled New York State Assembly passed on Saturday; and the Republican-controlled state Senate is set to vote on it Sunday evening. It follows a compromise reached Friday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and lawmakers.

Under the plan, the Excelsior Scholarship would kick off this fall with a three-year phase-in. In 2017, it would cover tuition at the state's community colleges or four-year universities for students from families making up to $100,000 annually; the threshold moves up to to $110,000 in 2018, and $125,000 in 2019.

A statement from Cuomo's office says that more than 940,000 families would be eligible.

Cuomo writes Sunday:

Today, college is what high school was — it should always be an option even if you can't afford it. The Excelsior Scholarship will make college accessible to thousands of working and middle class students, and shows the difference that government can make.

To be eligible, students must be enrolled full-time with an average 30 credits per year. While eliminating tuition expenses, students will still need to pay fees and room and board charges, leaving potentially significant charges.

The initiative drew praise from Binghamton University President Harvey Stenger, who said: "By removing the burden of tuition for families making $125,000 or less, we can attract more talented, qualified students to our campuses who may have been discouraged by the rising costs of attending college. I thank the Governor for being a champion for affordable education in New York State."

Inside Higher Ed notes that

a last-minute addition to the bill is alarming some student aid experts, including advocates for free public college tuition. The agreement requires those who receive free tuition to live and work in the state for the same number of years that they receive the awards. If they do not, the scholarships would convert to student loans. The requirement may be deferred if recipients leave the state to complete their undergraduate education, to enroll in graduate school or because of "extreme hardship."

Cuomo unveiled the proposal in January alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The Vermont Independent (and Brooklyn native) said during the announcement at LaGuardia Community College: "It is basically insane to tell the young people of this country, 'we want you to go out and get the best education you can, we want you to get the jobs of the future—oh, but after you leave school, you're going to be 30, 50, 100 thousand dollars in debt...and you're going to have to spend decades paying off that debt...and if you don't pay off that debt when you're old they may garnish your Social Security payment to pay off that debt.'"

"Our job is to encourage every person in this country to get all of the education they can, not to punish them for getting that education," said Sanders.

Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal introduced similar legislation this month—the College for All Act—with Jayapal declaring it was needed "to give our young people a future, reduce wealth inequality, and grow our economy."

Also part of the New York budget package is a proposal to stop the state from being a near total-outlier in one aspect: it would raise the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18. That change would give young people "a chance to grow up and recover from their past wrongdoing without forfeiting their futures," according to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

The Justice Policy Institute praised the development, stating; "Adult prisons are devastating for youth, their families, and communities. We commend New York's shift towards a better juvenile justice approach, that will ultimately keep costs in check while creating safer communities."

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