By Bill Parry
Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a new proposal at LaGuardia Community College Tuesday that would make SUNY and CUNY college tuition free for nearly a million families making less than $125,000 a year. With Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at his side, Cuomo announced his new Excelsior Scholarship program to alleviate the crushing burden of student debt.
“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,” Cuomo said. “New York is making a major investment in our greatest asset — our people — and supporting the dreams and ambitions of those who want a better life and are willing to work hard for it.”
Sanders, who pushed for free tuition nationwide during his presidential bid, called Cuomo’s program “revolutionary” and urged state legislators to approve the plan and make it a model for the rest of the nation.
“If we are going to do justice to the working families of this country, to the low-income families, if we are going to have an economy that creates jobs, we must have the best-educated workforce in the world,” Sanders said. “Our job is to encourage every person in this country to get all the education he or she can, not to punish them for getting that education.”
In 2015, the average student loan debt in New York was $29,320. If approved, the Excelsior Scholarship program will work by supplementing existing aid initiatives such as the Tuition Assistance Program, which provides nearly $1 billion in grants to students statewide, and federal aid.
The plan is expected to cost about $163 million a year when fully implemented by 2019. Cuomo plans to institute the program in stages, beginning by offering it to families making up to $100,000 starting in the fall of 2017, increasing to $110,000 in 2018, and reaching $125,000 in 2019.
“College is a mandatory step if you really want to be a success,” Cuomo said. “And this society should say we’re going to pay for college because you need college to be successful. Other countries have done it. It’s time this country catches up.”
State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing), ranking member of the Higher Education Committee, sponsored a similar bill in 2015.
“In today’s world, college has become not a privilege, but a necessary step for working individuals of all fields,” Stavisky said. “Unfortunately, college comes with a price tag that few can afford without burdensome loans. The proposal presented by Gov. Cuomo and supported by Sen. Bernie Sanders is an important step toward equal access to higher education. While families who make less than $125,000 will be able to send their children to SUNY and CUNY school for free, we must also ensure no hikes are implemented on students who are paying tuition to off-set the costs. Last year, we were able to secure a tuition freeze for public college and university students — a trend I would like to see continue. I congratulate and thank the governor for his commitment to higher education and I look forward to working with him to better our state’s higher education system.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr