Earlier this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a new plan that could potentially help hundreds of thousands of middle class New Yorkers pay for college. Under the proposed plan SUNY and CUNY students whose families make less than $125,000 per year will be eligible to receive free tuition.
“A college education is not a luxury – it is an absolute necessity for any chance at economic mobility,” Cuomo said in a Jan. 3 speech at La Guardia Community College. “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.”
The state’s existing Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, provides over $1 billion in aid annually to students whose families make $100,000 or less, with grants ranging from $500 to $5,165. Rather than replace it, the Excelsior Scholarship will work in tandem with TAP to pay off the remaining balance of a student’s tuition.
The new initiative seeks to address one of the greatest concerns for young voters in the 2016 election: rapidly increasing student loan debt. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who promised to make all public colleges tuition-free during his presidential candidacy, joined the governor onstage for the announcement.
“What Governor Cuomo is proposing is a revolutionary idea for higher education,” Sanders said at the event. “It’s an idea that’s going to reverberate not only throughout the State of New York, but throughout this country.”
Before any action can be taken, the program must be approved by the state legislature and included in the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. So far, the proposal has been met with mixed reviews from lawmakers. Among those who have expressed reservations about the plan, including Chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee Deborah J. Glick, the primary criticism seems to be that it may end up exceeding the projected annual cost of $163 million.
This sentiment was echoed by sophomore computer science major Tom Vetere, who called the plan infeasible.
“New York is already losing business and people at an alarming rate due to extremely high tax rates that only keep increasing,” Vetere said.
On the other hand, some students, like freshman health science major Thanh Kha, were more focused on the potential benefits of Cuomo’s plan.
“I think it will positively impact a lot of students here,” Kha said. “It will open up a lot of opportunities for lower and middle class families.”
Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley expressed optimism but stressed the importance of distributing financial aid in a way that would benefit schools as well as individual students.
“We applaud Governor Cuomo’s proposal to make public higher education more affordable for families in need, his focus on the academic excellence of New York’s public higher education sector, and his emphasis on the importance of completion,” Stanley said in a statement from the president’s office. “It is also important to maintain the quality of our public institutions as we increase access, so we are hopeful that any aid strategy be coupled with the predictable tuition methodology proposed by SUNY and/or a base increase for the campuses.”
If it is approved, the Excelsior Scholarship Program will launch in the fall of 2017. Initially, only students with an annual household income of less than $100,000 will qualify, but by 2019 eligibility will be extended to include anyone within the $125,000 bracket. The governor’s office estimates nearly one million families will be eligible, but the actual number of students receiving free tuition by 2019 will be closer to 200,000.