New York could move toward free college tuition

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In a move that could make a world of difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers—and set an example for other states as well—Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed offering low- and middle-income state residents free tuition to state colleges and universities. The plan, called the Excelsior Scholarship, was announced Jan. 3; it is similar to Hillary Clinton's New College Compact and builds on proposals from Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was on hand during the announcement.

Students at a free college rally in New YorkAll income-qualified students accepted to State University of New York and City University of New York schools would qualify for the tuition program, which would be phased in over three years. If approved, it would be available next fall to families earning up to $100,000 annually, then in 2018 to those earning $110,000, and finally in 2019 to those earning $125,000. Estimates put costs at around $163 million in the first year. Other details, such as how the program will be funded, are still being worked out, and the proposal must be approved by the state Legislature.

Education advocates and unionists support the concept and note the need for additional resources to fund the education so many New Yorkers need. "We applaud this historic step," says United University Professions President and AFT Vice President Frederick Kowal, who represents faculty at SUNY. "The governor's proposal recognizes public higher education as the gateway to the American dream, that a college education is a necessity, and that student debt is a problem we all must solve. We look forward to working with the governor to ensure that quality public education is available to and affordable for all New Yorkers."

The Professional Staff Congress, the AFT-affiliated faculty union for CUNY, calls the governor's proposal "a conceptual and political breakthrough."

"At a moment when college costs are rising, student debt is out of control and Americans are wary of what the future holds, New York state can reset the national agenda for college education by enacting a fully funded investment in free public college education for low- and middle-income students," PSC wrote in a statement.

Both unions also urged the governor to fund higher education beyond tuition grants. Kowal called for funding to hire more full-time faculty, expand programs and make up for deep cuts in the state education budget. "To enable students to graduate within two or four years, CUNY will need to be able to offer essential courses, support services and academic resources," wrote the PSC. "We urge the governor to take this opportunity to articulate an equally visionary agenda for public higher education investment."

The CUNY Rising Alliance, a coalition of education advocates that includes the PSC, calls the proposal "an important beginning" and offered this hopeful sentiment: "No matter what's happening in Washington, D.C., New York can have the fully funded public university systems its people need, if we fight for it and our leaders are willing to lead."

In his announcement, Cuomo recalled a time when public education was "the great equalizer" and a high school diploma was a ticket to success. Then the economy changed, and a college education became essential—but "incredibly expensive." (Students at the announcement are pictured above.)

"[College] debt is so high, it's like starting a race with an anchor tied to your leg," said Cuomo. "That is not fair. That is not right."

"It is basically insane to tell young people, we want you to get the best education you can and get the jobs of the future, but by the way, you're going to be $30-, $50-, $100,000 in debt," said Sanders. "Our job is to encourage every person in this country to get all the education they can, not to punish them for getting that education."

Should the proposal pass, New York would be the largest state to offer free tuition on this scale. Other states—Tennessee, Oregon and Minnesota—offer free tuition at community colleges, and Oregon also has a free program at Portland State University. Additional states have free-tuition legislation in the works and are no doubt watching New York closely.

[Virginia Myers/Associated Press photo]