The New York State Senate finally approved Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s much-commended proposal to make college education free for middle- and lower-income students, thus making the state first in the nation to offer free four-year tuition.
The plan, which costs $163 million in the new budget and takes effect in the fall, covers tuition for two- and four-year undergraduate programs at State University or City University of New York schools.
To be eligible to participate, a family's adjusted gross income must be $100,000 or less — at least for the time being. The state will lift the income cap to $110,000 next year and $125,000 in 2019.
Moreover, there is no particular age limit. Students do not have to be recent high school graduates to enroll, but they also cannot be in default on existing federal or state student loans.
So far so good, right?
Well, the fine print suggests the free-tuition plan, titled the Excelsior Scholarship, comes with a few strings attached that one might miss on the first brush.
For instance, after graduating, the recipients of the scholarship must work and live in New York for the same number of years they received funding. A provision, which was reportedly included in the proposal at the last minute at the insistence of Senate Republicans, clearly states the award will turn into a loan if the student leaves the state.
A professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, Sara Goldrick-Rab, was among the first people to notice and criticize the unnecessary condition.
According to his bill,@NYGovCuomo rather keep an unemployed college grad in state & on public benefits rather than letting them work in NJ— Sara Goldrick-Rab (@saragoldrickrab) April 11, 2017
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
Big administrative headache to "catch" the perhaps 20% who need to leave NY for military, grad school, service, family? Wasteful & mean. https://t.co/4VYPLEB5ob— Sara Goldrick-Rab (@saragoldrickrab) April 10, 2017
“New York spends $1 billion on college financial assistance. There is a brain-drain problem,” said Senate GOP spokesperson Scott Reif, according to The New York Post. “We have to get away from educating people and then having them move away. We want to create a climate for business and new jobs.”
Although it was not the part of his original proposal, Cuomo apparently agreed with the modification.
“Why should New Yorkers pay for your college education and then you pick up and you move to California?” the governor questioned. “The concept of investing in you and your education is that you’re going to stay here and be an asset to the state. If you don’t want to stay here, then go to California now, let them pay for your college education.”
As Goldrick-Rab pointed out, this particular clause will greatly limit the economic mobility of students, hindering their chances at getting good jobs and essentially prohibiting them to look for better opportunities for career advancement.
Then there is the fact that free tuition is not free college.
Although the cost to attend SUNY and CUNY colleges is already lower than most colleges in the United States — $6,470 for a four-year program and $4,350 for a community college program per year, the scholarship does not cover the high costs of books, room and board and other fees.
Considering New York has a higher-than-average cost of living, these additional expenditures approximately add over $14,000 to the initial cost of attending college, which is a lot for many families to bear.
There is also the possibility that tuition might go up for those who don't get the Excelsior Scholarship.
Moreover, students are required to take 30 credits a year to receive the scholarship, which means part-time students are excluded from enrolling in the program. Students are also required to maintain high enough GPA to stay in the school and finish on time — a provision that would be completely reasonable if it weren’t for the fact that only 40 percent of freshmen at public universities nationwide graduated within four years.
Banner and thumbnail credit: Reuters, Brian Snyder