Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a plan on Tuesday that would make SUNY and CUNY college tuition-free for students from families making $125,000 per year or less, borrowing from a proposal made by both Democratic candidates for president last year.
“A college education is not a luxury – it is an absolute necessity for any chance at economic mobility … 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,” Cuomo said.
More than 940,000 families could qualify for Cuomo’s plan providing free tuition at state and CUNY colleges and universities, including two-year schools, according to estimates from the governor’s office.
Called the Excelsior Scholarship, the program would require students to be enrolled in a two-year or four-year SUNY or CUNY school full time. The state currently provides about $1 billion in grants to college students statewide through the Tuition Assistance Program. The Excelsior Scholarship would provide additional state funds to cover the remaining tuition costs for incoming or existing eligible students, according to the announcement.
Cuomo’s office estimates the plan would cost about $163 million per year once fully phased in, based on enrollment projections.
The announcement did not include any recommendations for where that money would come from. The program would also require action from the state Legislature to be phased in on Cuomo’s aggressive timeline. Cuomo has called for the scholarship to begin this fall for New York families making up to $100,000 annually, increasing to $110,000 in 2018 and reaching $125,000 in 2019, according to the announcement.
The current tuition for SUNY four-year schools is $6,470 per academic year, and $4,350 at two-year community colleges.
Tuition, however, rarely covers the full cost of college. Annual fees, meal plans, books and housing often double or triple the yearly cost of tuition.
At SUNY Purchase College, a single room in a residence hall is $4,720 per semester, and the cheapest meal plan is $2,225. The college estimates the direct cost of attendance for an in-state undergraduate student to be about $21,200 per year, just about $500 higher than the SUNY average. That estimate includes tuition, room and board and annual fees. It does not include book costs, which the school says average $1,300 per year.
In a statement on the college’s Facebook page, Purchase President Thomas J. Schwarz said the school “supports all initiatives that increase access and affordability. We look forward to working with the governor and remain dedicated to providing the highest quality education in the liberal arts, sciences, and performing and visual arts.”
A spokesperson for Purchase College said the school would need more details on Cuomo’s plan before estimating how many of its students would qualify, but added that 66 percent of its current enrollment receive financial aid.
Belinda S. Miles, president of Westchester Community College, described the proposal as critically needed. She said 64 percent of the college’s 13,000 full and part-time students apply for financial aid, about 90 percent of which receive aid and have family incomes below the $125,000 threshold.
“A lot of people believe that, since community colleges are priced cheaply, there’s no need for additional support, but that is not always the case,” Miles said. “So I’m very optimistic that our state legislators will look very closely at ways they can help develop talent throughout New York because it’s so needed for the kind of employment opportunities present in today’s economy.”
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont appeared at the side of Cuomo at the announcement Tuesday. Sanders himself made tuition-free public college a central part of his platform for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Cuomo’s plan is also similar to one proposed by Sanders’ primary opponent and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s plan, announced last June, used the same $125,000 household income cut off and would have offered tuition-free attendance at in-state four-year public colleges and universities to qualifying families. The Sanders plan did not include any wording about a household income cut off.
The SUNY system, representing 64 campuses total, is the largest public university system in the country. New York’s move toward offering free tuition could set a precedent for other states, a possibility talked up by Sanders at the announcement on Tuesday.
“If New York does it this year, mark my words, state after state will follow,” Sanders said. “And the day will come when we understand that public education in America is not simply kindergarten through high school, but public education in the year 2017 means making public colleges and public universities tuition free.”