College for All in New York

Cuomo’s tuition-free plan offers promise and doubt

By Steven Morris

On January 3rd, at LaGuardia Community College, a daring and progressive step was taken by Governor Andrew Cuomo with the announcement of a plan to rid the burden of student debt on students in New York State. Coined as “The Excelsior Scholarship,” it is a plan that offers to make college tuition free for SUNY and CUNY students.

Per New York State’s website, under The Excelsior Scholarship, “more than 940,000 middle-class families and individuals making up to $125,000 per year would qualify to attend college tuition-free at all public universities in New York State.” This plan also includes accepted college students attending two-year community colleges.

“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,” said Cuomo in his announcement of the bold plan.

The Excelsior Scholarship calls for, pending approval from New York State Congress, the state to pick up the tab on the tuition bill by paying the difference left by existing federal and state grant programs. This plan would also be phased over a three-year period, beginning this fall for families and individuals making $100,000. The threshold would increase in 2018 to $110,000 and $125,000 in 2019.

The governor’s office estimates that when this proposal is in full effect, which would be in 2019, it would cost the state $163 million a year.

Cuomo, in his announcement, also declared “This society should say, ‘we’re going to pay for college because you need college to be successful,’ and New York State – New York State is going to do something about it.”

Alongside Cuomo at the announcement sat Senator Bernie Sanders who, during his Presidential Campaign, called for tuition-free public colleges nationwide with the U.S. government footing the bill.

Sanders said the plan was a “revolutionary idea for higher education…a message that is going to provide hope and optimism for working-class families all-across the state [and] If New York State does it this year, mark my words, state after state will follow.”

With a promising announcement and plan to help middle and working-class college students of New York, comes little details and questions about the plan.

The Excelsior Scholarship, per the plan, is supposed to alleviate the tuition bill for SUNY and CUNY students. However, not everything will be free. Students will still be on the hook for room and board, food, books and fees. Those expenses add between $14,180 and $14,144 to the tuition at SUNY and CUNY colleges.

Under the tuition-free proposal, a student would also have to be on track to graduate on time; which is a difficult task for both SUNY and CUNY students.

In a public hearing by the Assembly Standing Committee on Higher Education, it was revealed that half of full-time SUNY students finish a bachelor’s degree in four years.

According to the CUNY Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, only an estimated 26% of full-time students complete a bachelor’s degree in four years.

The $163 million that this plan would cost the state, a relatively low cost for a program like this, also received some skepticism from the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee Chairwoman, Deborah J. Glick.

“The cost estimate of $163 million begs the question: If it costs so little, why haven’t we done it before?” Glick says.

With the Excelsior Scholarship, Cuomo, a centrist democrat for most of his political career, tries to capture the excitement and energy of a young democratic base that is shifting more towards the left, in hopes of building his resume for the 2020 presidential race.

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