By Patrick Donachie
The state budget agreed upon by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature will include a program to make CUNY and SUNY colleges and universities tuition-free for families making up to $125,000 a year, which Cuomo highlighted in last year’s State of the State address. Cuomo was joined by Hillary Clinton to sign the legislation at LaGuardia Community College Wednesday.
“Taking this next step to make college tuition-free for hardworking families is the right thing to do, and the smart thing to do,” the former presidential candidate said about the legislation. “I was proud to put this plan forward during my campaign, and I’m thrilled that it’s become a reality in New York.”
There are criticisms of an aspect of the proposed legislation, however, that mandates students who benefit from the program must stay in New York state, or the scholarships will be transferred into student loans.
“Today, college is what high school was — it should always be an option even if you can’t afford it,” Cuomo said about the legislation, called the Excelsior Scholarship Program. “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.’ ”
About 80 percent of families with college-age students would qualify for the program, which would apply to all two and four-year colleges in New York state, according to Cuomo. The governor’s office also said that 84.3 percent of the 461,499 families with college-age students in New York City would qualify.
State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing) helped secure the tuition, after years of advocacy to bring the program to fruition, introducing similar legislation in 2014. She said she was pleased by the new legislation, but was still frustrated that the children of undocumented immigrants could not apply.
“Yet another year goes by without the DREAM Act going from bill to law,” Stavisky said. “I can only hope that the success of the Excelsior Scholarship will ultimately guide my colleagues to passing a fully realized DREAM Act.”
The scholarship program will have a three-year rollout, with New York families making up to $100,000 qualifying in the fall of 2017, families under $110,000 qualifying the year after, and families making under $125,000 qualifying in 2019. Students have to be enrolled full-time, averaging 30 credits per year, but students will be able to pause the program or take more or less credits per semester.
The students will have to keep a certain grade point average and will also be required to live and work in New York state for the same amount of time that they benefit from scholarship grants (if they attend a four-year college, they must work in the state for four years). This last aspect of the program has received some criticism, including from the Center for an Urban Future, which said such a program “could transform a financial blessing into a burden for many students” in an op-ed posted on its site.
“If the student lives or works outside New York at all, the grant is converted into a loan and must be paid back. That changes the meaning of the free college plan dramatically,” the op-ed said. “Forcing college graduates to live and work in New York is wrong. A grant should be a grant, not a loan with an escape clause.”
Reach reporter Patrick Donachie by e-mail at pdona