On Sunday, hours before the New York State Senate approved the Fiscal Year 2018 budget, Governor Andrew Cuomo made a final push for his plan to eliminate tuition for hundreds of thousands of public four-year and community college students across the state.
"With this budget, we have established a national model for access to higher education, and achieved another New York first," the governor wrote in a post on Medium. "The Excelsior Scholarship program will afford every child the opportunity that education provides."
SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher praised the plan, calling it "truly ground-breaking."
But a new provision in the plan, which will ultimately provide full CUNY and SUNY tuition relief for individuals or families who make $125,000 per year or less, has some education policy experts and tuition-free advocates concerned.
Under the approved plan, students will be required to live and work in-state "for the same number of years after graduation as they received the scholarship while in school," according to Cuomo. Any student who chooses to live or work outside the state will see their grant transferred to a loan.
The idea, the governor explained, is to ensure that students give back to the state that provides their scholarship. "The program makes a major investment in the state's greatest asset — our young people," he wrote.
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.
Inside Higher Ed reports that the majority of SUNY and CUNY students are from in-state, and that, according to both systems, more than 80 percent of SUNY and CUNY students remain in state after graduation.
Free college is about moving beyond a complex, untrustworthy aid system. This move perpetuates existing problems. https://t.co/4VYPLEB5ob
— Sara Goldrick-Rab (@saragoldrickrab) April 10, 2017
"I'm waiting for Bernie Sanders to call [Cuomo]," said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a Professor of Higher Education at Temple University, who helped draft Oregon's tuition-free legislation. "We have college scholarships in spades, and they don't work well partly because they are narrow and trick people. This whole movement [for tuition-free college] is about the exact opposite of that. And you slip this in, and it's a poison pill."
"We're telling low-income students they have to remain in one of the most expensive states in the nation," she added.
Senator Bernie Sanders, who made tuition-free college a pillar of his 2016 presidential campaign, stood alongside Cuomo to present the scholarship proposal in January. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the out-of-state provision, though the Senator tweeted yesterday that "Real progress appears to be taking place in New York State."
Earlier this month, Sanders introduced the College for All Act, which would eliminate tuition and fees at all four-year public colleges and universities, for students and families making less than $125,000. Community colleges would be tuition and fee-free for all.
Center for an Urban Future, a nonpartisan NYC policy organization, released a response to Cuomo's live-work provision this weekend, describing it as a "very big catch."
"The idea of providing free tuition to so many low and moderate income New Yorkers is a great thing," director Jonathan Bowles told Gothamist on Monday. "Higher education is really the ticket to the middle class today. But this change means that for a lot of New Yorkers this tuition isn't really free at all."
"A lot of New Yorkers think this is a free ride, and they are going to be in bad shape if they come out of this facing significant debts," he added. "In a lot of upstate cities, there aren't as many opportunities. And if someone is growing up in Buffalo—maybe they're the first in their family to get a degree—why shouldn't they consider a job offer in LA or Chicago?"
Marc Cohen, president of the Student Assembly of The State University of New York, represents students before the Board of Trustees of SUNY. "I don't think there is as much need to leave New York as there once was," he said, citing programs like Start-Up New York.
"We stand in support of this [Excelsior] plan, but we stand in support of accessibility without strings attached," he added. "If a student receives an outstanding education and gets a job offer in another city, it's hard to look them in the eye and tell them they have to stay in New York. I don't think we should tie student's hands behind their backs."
Cuomo spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer responded to concerns from free-college advocates.
“This first-in-the-nation program is a major investment in New Yorkers and in New York's future," she said in a statement to Gothamist. "By ensuring our highly-skilled, highly-qualified students live and work in-state for the number of years they received the Excelsior Scholarship, we are guaranteeing this investment pays dividends right here at home, while growing New York’s world-class workforce and moving our economy forward."
The plan is expected to cost $87 million in its first year. Recipients will have to be enrolled full time, and earn at least 30 credits per year, with an option to pause the scholarship in the case of hardship.
Hunter College student John Aderounmu, with the new student-run Campaign to Make CUNY Free Again, said the course load requirement will be a challenge for many low-income students, who take jobs to cover costs not covered by the scholarship: from MetroCards to textbooks. "The governor proposed a scholarship from the middle class," he said.