New York’s Free Tuition Program Still Comes with Considerable Cost

The New York legislature passed a bill enacting the Excelsior Scholarship on April 7th. The program, designed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, provides tuition-free college at New York public universities to families making up to $125,000 a year. Although other states offer free community college, New York is the first state to fully subsidize tuition at both two and four-year universities.

Who is eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship? You must be an undergraduate enrolled in a SUNY (State Univeristy of New York) or CUNY (City University of New York) college taking at least 30 credit hours a year. The income cap will be phased in over the next three years. Starting this fall, families who earn no more than $100,000 a year are eligible. The income cap will lift to $110,000 next year and will reach $125,000 in 2019.

The New York Times estimates that the 30 credit hour requirement eliminates 90 percent of community college students and 60 percent of four-year college students. Students from low-income families often need to work while attending school part-time which disqualifies them from the Excelsior Scholarship. Cuomo’s administration has been quick to note that a large amount of low-income student’s tuition is already covered by state and federal aid.

The scholarship is a “last-dollar” program that bridges the gap between tuition costs and previously available state and federal aid. In other words, Excelsior kicks in once all other scholarships opportunities have been exhausted. It only covers tuition costs, and does not apply to room & board and fees which can run upwards of $13,000 a year.

The bill was met with a mix of praise and criticism after details of the program were released. Hillary Clinton posted on twitter: “Let's celebrate New York State getting something important done that we wanted to do nationally. A great step for progressives.” The criticisms arise primarily from a provision in the bill not present in Cuomo’s original free-tuition plan. After graduation, recipients of the Excelsior Scholarship must live and work in New York for as many years as they received the scholarship. If they leave New York after graduating, the scholarship will be converted into a loan.

“Why should New York pay for your college education and you pick up and move to California?”, Coumo told The New York Post. “The concept of investing in you and your education is that you’re going to stay here and be an asset to the state. If you don’t stay here, then go to California and let them pay for your college education.”   

Students who receive tuition benefits and then leave the state for an advanced degree won’t have to pay the money back, but they will be required to return to New York once they complete their graduate studies. State officials also plan to make accommodations for graduates who leave the state for military service.

Because the program is the first of its kind, it is difficult to predict how the residency requirement will affect New York students. Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab from Temple University told the New York Times that the provision is a “poison pill” due to its strict mobility rules.

Demand for free public university tuition reflects soaring costs at state universities due to cutbacks in higher education funding. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that from 2008-2016 states cut per-pupil spending by $1,598. Whether the Excelsior Scholarship actually increases the number of students going to college remains to be seen, but critics say the Governor’s plan is no more than an entitlement for the upper-middle class and won’t help the families that need tuition assistance the most.