Standing alongside Senator Bernie Sanders at a community college in Queens on Tuesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a proposal to eliminate tuition for hundreds of thousands of public four-year and community college students across the state. The roughly-sketched plan, which must be approved by the state legislature, would provide full tuition relief for individuals or families who make $125,000 per year or less. Free tuition would apply to all City University of New York and State University of New York schools—84 in total.
"If you want to offer everyone a fair shot, you have to get up to date and say, 'What high school was 75 years ago, college is today,'" Governor Cuomo told a cheering crowd of union members and local legislators. "The way society said, 'We're going to pay for high school because you need high school,' this society should say, 'We're going to pay for college because you need college.'"
Cuomo, who appears to be considering a 2020 presidential run, was also careful to contextualize the announcement. "It should be a wake-up call to this nation," he said. A Hillary Clinton supporter during last year's presidential campaign, he heaped praise on Senator Sanders, calling the Clinton challenger "ahead of his time" and a candidate who "really woke the nation" with his own tuition-free college proposal.
"If New York does it this year," Sanders said during his own remarks, "mark my words, state after state will follow."
A CUNY education was free for qualifying students from its founding in 1847 until 1976. Today, according to the Governor's Office, average annual tuition for a bachelors degree through CUNY or SUNY ranges from $6,330 to $6,470. For an associates degree, the range is $4,350 to $4,800. In 2015, the average student loan debt in New York State was $29,320.
The proposed scholarship would be accessible to about 940,000 families, according to the Governor. Students would have to be enrolled in a SUNY or CUNY school full-time to qualify—a qualification Cuomo says will motivate students to complete their studies on time.
Named the Excelsior Scholarship, the program would cover the remaining cost of tuition after state and federal scholarships have been exhausted—a so-called "last dollar" funding structure. Already, New York State offers close to $1 billion in grants to college students through its Tuition Assistance Program.
"'Last dollar' means that after the student as exploited all of the other possible sources of financial aid, then if there is any tuition remaining, this scholarship will cover that," said Professor Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.
Bailey warned that the "last dollar" approach can end up providing less aid to low-income students than a "first dollar" approach, which would cover the entirety of the tuition up-front. "First dollar" programs cover tuition in addition to state and federal aid, meaning low-income students who also qualify for, say, the federal Pell grant, get more aid overall. The Pell grant currently applies to students whose families make less than $25,000 per year. Any funds that don't go towards tuition can be spent on food, lodging and textbooks.
"If it were 'first dollar,' then it would help the people who really need it the most," he said. "And it would give them additional money for living expenses, which are crucial." President Obama launched a first-dollar tuition-free campaign in 2015, called America's College Promise. However, Obama's proposal would be for community colleges only. Cuomo's is more comprehensive in that it would apply to four year public colleges, as well.
Cuomo is hoping to establish the Excelsior Scholarship over the course of the next three years. According to his office, full scholarships would be accessible to families making up to $100,000 annually in fall 2017, $110,000 annually in 2018, and $125,000 annually in fall 2019.
Our job is to encourage every person in this country to get all of the education they can, not to punish them for getting that education. pic.twitter.com/PtReBKXO0J
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) January 3, 2017
There are currently 37 states with tuition-free college programs, Politico reports. Some are established at specific colleges, or apply to cities. Others are state-wide, but are limited to community and technical colleges. Many of these programs are "last dollar," like Cuomo's proposed program.
Bailey also cautioned that the success of any tuition-free program will hinge on accompanying investments in CUNY and SUNY schools: the sort of funding that supports smaller class sizes and more course offerings, as well as higher salaries for professors. A promising model is CUNY's Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) program, which waives tuition for qualifying low-income students, in addition to providing MetroCards, money for textbooks, and student counseling.
Until the Governor's Office clarifies where the funding will come from, there's concern about how a tuition-free model might negatively impact public education overall.
"Research has suggested that bigger classes, more online courses, and more adjunct professors tend to make student outcomes worse," Bailey said. "That's the kind of things that colleges have done to cut costs. So, yes, you are reducing the cost. But there's a cost to reducing that cost."
Fran Clark, a spokesman for the Professional Staff Congress of CUNY, the union representing CUNY faculty and staff, said that PSC is eager to learn about the funding plan. Last year, Cuomo said that he expected New York City to take over $485 million of CUNY's funding costs. He eventually backpedaled, but union members say he's been lowballing the public university network for years. In 2015, according to the NY Times, CUNY faced a $51 million budget shortfall.
"The PSC welcomes any investment in free tuition," Clark said. "We've supported that for years. But it needs to come with increased investment from the state in quality in CUNY as well."
Blaire Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, is campaigning for restored funding for CUNY and SUNY. According to his group, higher education funding across the state has been reduced by about $1 billion over the last 15 years.
"The devil will be in the details, but we think it's a great step forward," Horner told Gothamist. "The only thing we're going to be mindful of, is when [Governor Cuomo] puts his budget out, does he couple it with raising tuition at the four-year schools to cover this?"
Both CUNY and SUNY have endorsed the proposal. "SUNY strongly supports the Excelsior Scholarship Program and we will be making it a top priority in the upcoming budget session," said Chairman Carl McCall and Chancellor Nancy Zimpher in a statement.
"We applaud the Governor’s announcement today and look forward to seeing the full details of the plan," said Mayoral Spokeswoman Freddi Goldstien.