College & Workforce Readiness

New York First in Nation to Make Tuition Free at Public Four-Year Colleges

By Catherine Gewertz — April 10, 2017 2 min read
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New York has become the first state in the country to make tuition free at public four-year colleges and universities, but it has sparked objections by imposing a key restriction on students who receive the assistance.

The change is part of the state budget for fiscal year 2018, which was approved by the state legislature over the weekend. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the $153 billion budget deal late Friday night. Many states are working to make community college free, or have already done so. But New York is the first to drop tuition payments for four-year public institutions.

“By making college at our world-class public universities tuition-free, we have established a national model for access to higher education, and achieved another New York first,” Cuomo said in a prepared statement. On his blog, the governor said, “Today, college is what high school was— it should always be an option even if you can’t afford it.”

The “Excelsior Scholarship” provision of the budget will allow students from families earning less than $125,000 per year to attend all two- or four-year institutions in the City University of New York and State University of New York systems tuition-free. Projections about how many students will benefit from the program vary; according to the New York Times, Gov. Cuomo’s office said 940,000 families are eligible for the benefit, but a legislative analysis said it would be closer to 32,000.

The program will be phased in over three years. In the fall of 2017, families earning up to $100,000 annually will be eligible. In 2018, the earnings cap rises to $110,000, and it rises to $125,000 per year in the fall of 2019. Students must attend college full time—although they can pause their studies if they hit a period of hardship—and maintain grades good enough to pass their courses.

Free tuition will save New York college students a bundle: upwards of $6,300 per year at the four-year schools, and $4,300 in New York’s community colleges. But as Forbes pointed out in a story about the proposal earlier this year, students still face hefty bills. This year’s room and board charges are $10,386 at CUNY and $12,590 at SUNY, Forbes reported. Students at CUNY face fees of $640; those at SUNY must pay $1,590. Books and supplies run about $1,300 in both systems, Forbes said.

One provision of the plan is coming in for sharp criticism, according to Inside Higher Ed. It requires students to live and work in New York state for as many years as they received free tuition. If they don’t, they’ll be required to pay off the tuition amount as if it were a loan.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University in Philadelphia who’s been a big proponent of free college tuition. In a series of tweets before the legislature acted on the budget, she urged lawmakers to remove the stay-in-New-York requirement, calling it “a trick” and “dangerous.”

New York writer and labor organizer Erik Forman, in a tweet, called the provision “indentured servitude.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.