Gov. Cuomo signs legislation enacting free public college tuition program

Jacob Greenfeld | Assistant Photo Editor

Cuomo signed the legislation Tuesday at the LaGuardia Community College in Queens.

New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday signed legislation enacting the nation’s first statewide program to provide free college tuition to students attending both two- and four-year public universities.

Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship, which was passed earlier this week as part of New York state’s fiscal year 2018 budget, will provide free tuition to students attending State University of New York and City University of New York schools.

The scholarship will be phased in over a period of three years. This fall, students from families that make up to $100,000 will be eligible for the scholarship. In 2018, students will qualify for the program if they come from families that make up to $110,000. In 2019, students from families making up to $125,000 will be able to attend public colleges in the state for free.

Cuomo signed the legislation Tuesday at the LaGuardia Community College in Queens, alongside former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

“By providing tuition-free college to thousands of middle class New Yorkers, we are restoring the promise of the American Dream for the next generation and forging a bold path forward of access and opportunity for the rest of the nation to follow,” Cuomo said in a press release.

Clinton said in the release that she hopes other states follow New York’s example and enact similar free tuition programs for students attending public universities.

The Excelsior Scholarship has also been endorsed by other prominent politicians, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who frequently advocated for a free tuition system for public colleges in the United States during his presidential bid last year. All Americans, regardless of income, should have access to higher education, Sanders said in the release.

Despite this support, the Excelsior Scholarship has sparked debate among many lawmakers and experts.

“If you’re really concerned about students who are not attending because of the reality or the perception of unaffordability, this is not the way to help them,” D. Bruce Johnstone, a former SUNY system chancellor, told The New York Times. “This is going to cost money, and it will make some parents happy, but I don’t see it moving the accessibility needle.”

Johnstone argued that the Excelsior Scholarship would only help “a slice” of the state’s middle-class students, per The New York Times. Some lawmakers have also expressed similar concerns since January, when Cuomo originally announced his intention to enact the scholarship program.

New York state Republican lawmakers have also criticized the legislation for excluding students attending private universities in the state, per Politico. Republicans instead proposed an expansion of New York’s existing Tuition Assistance Program, which awards grants to students attending both public and private universities based on financial need.

Lawmakers questioned the program’s financial feasibility as well, according to Politico. Cuomo has estimated that the Excelsior Scholarship, by 2019, will cost the state $163 million.

Fred Kowal, president of the United University Professions union that represents SUNY faculty, told Politico that the state needs “to make sure” the needed amount of funding is available to support the Excelsior Scholarship so that “we don’t get into a situation where campuses find themselves facing shortfalls … and at the same time they have an influx of students coming in.”

About 76 percent of families with college-age students in New York will be eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship, per Cuomo’s press release. By 2024, according to the release, 3.5 million jobs in the state will require an associate’s degree or higher. This is about 420,000 more jobs than in 2014.

“With a college education now a necessity to succeed in today’s economy, I am proud to sign this first-in-the-nation legislation that will make college accessible, strengthen the middle class, and build a brighter future for all New Yorkers,” Cuomo said in the release.


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