New York Offers Free Tuition, With a Catch

Gov. Andrew Cuomo. / New York State website

Met with criticism, New York State has become the first in the country to offer free tuition for two and four-year public universities.

As part of the $153.1 billion state budget of New York that was passed on April 9, New York citizens with families making up to $100,000 will be able to apply for the Excelsior Scholarship program, offering free college tuition starting in fall 2017. Students must take 30 credits per year and remain in New York for up to four years after they graduate.

“Low income students aren’t going to get anything out of it and they need more help,” said Florencia Salinas, CLAS student government president at Brooklyn College. “I think the Excelsior does what it’s set out to do, which is to privilege the middle class.”

The traditional college student on track to graduate in four years has great opportunity to benefit; however CUNY, which estimates between 3,000 to 5,000 students will qualify for the program, does not house strictly traditional students.

David Bloomfield, professor of education at the CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College, where nearly half the student body graduates, believes that the incentive to require 30 credits could actually discourage students from using the program. “It’s less likely to be an incentive for on-time graduation and more likely to discourage the program’s utility,” he said. “I think it’s a move to reduce the state’s exposure.”

The financial requirement for the program will increase to $110,000 in 2018 and cap out at $125,000 in 2019. In addition, graduate students are not eligible for the program and a minimum 2.0 GPA must be maintained.

Nearly 950,000 families or 80 percent of New York State could benefit from the program, according to information released by the State. In New York City, of about 500,000 families with college-age children, 84.3 percent are eligible. For those not eligible, the budget allows CUNY and SUNY to increase their tuition by $200 a year for three years.

“There is no child who will go to sleep tonight and say, I have great dreams, but I don’t believe I’ll be able to get a college education because parents can’t afford it. With this program, every child will have the opportunity that education provides,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said in a statement after the budget was passed.

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While Cuomo has supported the DREAM Act, a proposal that can grant “conditional residency” to undocumented immigrants, the Excelsior program will not be eligible for the some 6,000 undocumented students at CUNY.

“The 2017 budget is a disappointment for our four million immigrant New Yorkers, at a time when President Trump’s Muslim bans, deportation threats and proposed budgets cuts have directly threatened our communities,” said Steve Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition in a statement.

“I was not surprised that it does not cover undocumented students,” Salinas, who is an Argentinian native, said. “CUNY has a representation for being part of the community, and this is only hurting that.”

Salinas accepted an out-of-state job post-graduation. If she were a student who had gone through college on the Excelsior, she would have had to pass on the opportunity and continue her search. Students are required to remain in New York after graduation for the amount of time that they were funded by the program or the scholarship will be transferred to a loan.

“I really feel strongly that the provision that forces students to stay…in state for up to four years after they graduate is potentially very harmful,” said Douglas Webber, a professor of economics at Temple University with a Ph.D in economics from Cornell University.

Webber said the State’s incentive is to benefit the New York economy by ensuring more college grads work in state. “I’m not sure how much good it’s actually going to do for the state economy. In some cases, it’s going to hurt them,” he said in an interview. “It’s a powerful incentive for those people to stay unemployed and stay collecting safety-net services.”

According to Webber, with New York graduates streamlined into the state economy, the national economy could take a blow from lack of labor. “There’s all sorts of evidence that says that mobility…is one of the big things that a college degree gets you. It lets you compete in a national labor market. And this is restricting that. So it’s going to cost people some money and at a very critical time.”

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