With Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at his side, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday announced a plan to offer free tuition at state and city colleges for middle- and low-income New Yorkers.
Under the Excelsior Scholarship, described as the first of its kind in the nation, students whose families make $125,000 or less per year would be eligible to attend all public universities in New York for free. More than 940,000 middle class families and individuals would qualify for the program, according to a statement from Cuomo's office.
"A college education is not a luxury—it is an absolute necessity for any chance at economic mobility," said Cuomo, a Democrat, "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."
The governor said that in 2015, the average student loan debt in New York was $29,320. Once passed by the state legislature, the proposal would be phased in over three years.
Of the progressive senator from Vermont, who was present at the LaGuardia Community College announcement and made tuition-free higher education a key plank of his presidential campaign, Cuomo added: "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."
Indeed, it was Sanders who pushed his one-time rival, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, to put forth a means-tested college affordability plan that Sanders praised as a "bold initiative" that would "revolutionize the funding of higher education in America."
In his remarks in New York on Tuesday, Sanders declared: "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, a Brooklyn native.
Online, Sanders expressed confidence that New York would pave the way for other states to make similar moves:
If New York makes public colleges and universities tuition-free, mark my words, state after state will follow.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) January 3, 2017
While the New York Times describes Cuomo as "a centrist with rumored presidential ambition," the Buffalo News reports: "Officials were already pitching the plan as a continuation of Cuomo's 'progressive' agenda for New York, which the governor counts as including a sharp rise in the minimum wage, the marriage equality law, and stronger gun control provisions known as the SAFE Act."
But to really prove his progressive bona fides, Cuomo must "lead his own state party into unified opposition to [President-elect Donald] Trump's toxic agenda," as Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org," told The Atlantic in December.
Indeed, a coalition of labor and environmental groups gathered in Albany last month to urge Cuomo to stand up to Trump by embracing renewable energy as well as a broader pro-labor, social justice agenda on the state level.