In a landmark move, New York just became the first state to offer free tuition for four-year state colleges and universities. On Sunday, the state senate passed a budget that includes $163 million dedicated to public education for low- and middle-income families. The Excelsior Scholarship program will offer free tuition to families making $100,000 or less by fall of 2017.
The scholarship was introduced by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in January as part of the $153 billion state budget. “Today what Gov. Cuomo is proposing is a revolutionary idea for higher education,” said Sanders at the time. “And it’s an idea that is going to reverberate not only throughout the state of New York, but throughout this country.”
Sanders ran a presidential campaign based largely on the need for universal higher education. According to Gallup, 35 percent of Millennials carry student loan debt, along with 25 percent of Gen Xers, and Millennials with student loans have an average of $40,000 total debt.
It’s an economic situation that’s been coming to a head over the last few decades. According to Temple University’s Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, states have been allocating less and less support to higher education while student costs have continued to rise. “It’s quite straightforward – the fraction of the cost of a college education covered by the state goes down, and the fraction covered by a student goes up,” she told The Christian Science Monitor.
And our financial aid system is not built to keep up with the increasing burden on families. “The existing aid system offers insufficient funding to lower-income students, leaving them short,” Goldrick-Rab said. “Moreover, a growing number of middle-class students are also being priced out as their family incomes have stagnated or even declined while public sector prices rise. They are too rich to qualify for need-based aid and too poor to afford college without it.”
New York’s budget approval represents a significant step forward for these middle-income families. However, many see it as only part of the solution. Non-tuition fees such as housing, food, transportation and textbooks can run up to more than double the cost of annual tuition. “This program does nothing to address the needs of countless low-income students,” said New York Assemblyman Victor M. Pichardo, who represents a district where nearly one-third of families live in poverty.
The scholarship program also includes a requirement that recipients remain in New York state after graduation for as many years as they received the benefit. “Why should New Yorkers pay for your college education and then you pick up and you move to California?” Cuomo said in a statement. “The concept of investing in you and your education is that you’re going to stay here and be an asset to the state.”
However, students say enforcing this rule is “going to be harder than people think,” as one 19-year-old put it. “I don’t know what life will have for me,” said another. For those looking for careers in tech, job opportunities will likely be easier to come by on the West Coast.
In spite of these drawbacks, the milestone scholarship program stands to benefit nearly 1 million families. By 2019, the income requirement will increase to $125,000, and apply to 80 percent of New York’s families with college-age children. This figure does not include adults entering college for the first time, who are also eligible.
Sen. Sanders hopes New York will provide a model for the rest of the country. As he said in a statement last week, “Higher education in America should be a right for all, not a privilege for the few.”