New York state legislature becomes first in the nation to pass tuition free public college legislation


Luke Dalessandro, Politics Editor

Upon approval by New York’s state legislature on April 12th, New York became the first state to make tuition at four year public colleges gratis. The tuition free legislation, under the title of the Excelsior Scholarship, was introduced by New York governor Andrew Cuomo as a last dollar program with the intention of increasing viability of college to low and middle income college age students. As measures to assure New York taxpayers who most need the funding acquire the benefits of the program, only undergraduates enrolled in a SUNY or CUNY and whose families do not exceed the income cap according to their most recent tax returns are eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship. The aforementioned income cap is to be phased in within the first three years of implementation, and starting this fall families who do not exceed $100,000 annually are able, with the cap extending to $110,000 in the second year, and finalizing at $125,000 in 2019. The cap, based on the adjusted gross income based on a families latest tax return, is absent of accounting for the size of a family and does not contain progressively decreasing funding based on income, does however exceed the average income of a New York household. Based on 2013 census statistics the median household income in New York ranked at $58,003 in the year, a value far less than the $100,000 income cap in the first year of the Excelsior Scholarships implementation. The Excelsior Scholarship, intent to cover the costs of $6,470 on average at SUNY schools, and $4,350 at community colleges, does not however cover all fees associated with enrollment at a college. At a SUNY, the cost of room and board for students living on campus was $12,590 in 2017, with books having the potential to cost another $1,000 annually. The legislation does attempt to alleviate other costs without covering them in full, the Excelsior budget contains $8 million for SUNY and CUNY schools to offer educational resources as a commodity to their students, in part through the form of electronic books.

As a last dollar program the total funding the scholarship provides to an individual are varied depending on other sources of public funding in which the student is eligible for as opposed to aptitude or income, and before being awarded the Excelsior Scholarship College Promise funds would have to first draw upon any available sources of public funding or grants. Concurrently, as a last dollar program grants are awarded to students last, and cover the remaining costs of tuition, in the case of the Excelsior Scholarship.

Not being a federal program the bill takes measures to ensure investing in higher education results in benefits to the state, to this end the legislation contains provisions mandating students who receive funding from the scholarship must stay in New York for an equal amount of years in which they received funding. Upon leaving residence of the state, the scholarship is converted into a loan, excepting students who graduate school out of state or enroll in the military. However with the Excelsior Scholarships provision on leaving state residence after drawing from the Excelsior Scholarship, the specified loan is exempt from many of the protections tied into federal student loans. The income based repayment plan is the predominant protection for federal student loan holders, which ties monthly payments on federal student debt to how much a household makes. With the Pay as You Earn IBR plan, introduced by former President Barrack Obama, the cap on monthly payments on student debt can be capped at 10% to those who qualify for IBR. Those who face a loan from the Excelsior Scholarship will not be eligible for IBR. In any case, according to Andrew Cuomos office, more than 75% of New York families with college aged students that do not exceed the income cap will qualify for the scholarship, which does eliminate the burden of tuition on many low and middle income households despite being a last dollar program.

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Under Obama’s Pay as you Earn Plan, graduates with relatively low income compared to their student debt can enroll in an IBR plan, potentially capping their monthly payments at 10%. SUNY or CUNY graduates who leave the state and face conversion to a loan, are not eligible for IBR.