Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Tuesday proposed making state public colleges tuition-free for middle-class families, an initiative he says will help alleviate crushing debt and enable “thousands of bright young students to realize their dream of higher education.”
Cuomo said the Excelsior Scholarship program would affect 940,000 middle-class families and individuals making up to $125,000 a year who want to send students to, or attend, all SUNY and CUNY two- and four-year colleges.
The first-in-the-nation program would also encourage students to graduate on time and improve graduation rates at state schools, Cuomo said.
The governor made the announcement at LaGuardia Community College in Queens with Brooklyn-born, former presidential hopeful and current Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at his side.
"A college education is not a luxury – it is an absolute necessity for any chance at economic mobility,” he said.
The program will give New Yorkers the opportunity to succeed “no matter what zip code they come from and without the anchor of student debt weighing them down," Cuomo said.
Student debt has soared to $1.2 trillion nationwide and has surpassed credit card debt, car debt and home equity lines of credit as the second largest economic burden on consumers. In 2015, the average student loan debt in New York was $29,320.
The average annual tuition at SUNY and CUNY for folks seeking a bachelor’s degree ranges from $6,330 - $6,470. An associate’s degree costs about $4,350 - $4,800.
In 2013, only 38.7 percent of students attending a four-year public university and roughly 8.5 percent going to two-year public colleges in New York completed their degrees on time, Cuomo said.
By mandating that the students be enrolled full-time, the program will improve graduation rates and encourage more of them to graduate on time.
The state is making a “major investment” in its greatest asset, its people, the governor said, adding that he was grateful for Sanders’ support.
Cuomo credited Sanders with being at the forefront of the fight for affordable education.
When running for president last year, Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, called for a number of reforms, including making tuition free at public colleges and universities, as well as stopping the federal government from “making a profit on students loans,” cutting student loan interest rates, allowing students to refinance loans and paying for tuition by imposing a tax on “Wall Street speculators.”
If passed by the state Legislature, it will be rolled out over a three-year period, beginning for New Yorkers making up to $100,000 a year in the fall of 2017 and increasing to $110,000 in 2018, and $125,000 in 2019, the governor’s office said.
Based on enrollment projections, the program will cost about $163 million a year, once fully phased in, Cuomo said.
According to the governor, it will work by leveraging the state’s aid programs.
At present, the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) provides close to $1 billion in grants to college students statewide.
(New York is one of only two states in the nation to offer this kind of entitlement program. The other is California.)
Under the program, eligible students would still receive TAP and any applicable federal grants. Additional state funds would cover the remaining tuition costs for incoming or existing eligible students.
Sanders called the proposal “a revolutionary idea for higher education” that is “going to reverberate not only throughout the state of New York, but throughout this country.”
The senator, pointing to the explosion of technology jobs, added that the United States needs the “best educated workforce in the world” if it is to “succeed in a highly competitive global economy.”
New York is also the only state in the nation to offer a need-based loan forgiveness entitlement program that provides awards to college graduates regardless of their degree or profession.
The “Get on Your Feet Loan Forgiveness” program provides up to two years of student loan forgiveness to recent state college graduates. Coupled with the new Excelsior Scholarships, the program will ensure New York “continues to lead the way forward on college affordability,” Cuomo said.
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