The Daily Tar Heel

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Friday February 3rd

New York becomes first state to offer free college tuition to certain students

New York will be the first state to offer free college tuition to students after state Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation Wednesday. 

Students attending State of New York or City of New York-system colleges will study tuition-free if their annual household income is $125,000 or lower. This encompasses nearly 80 percent of families in the state. 

“Today, college is what high school was — it should always be an option even if you can’t afford it,” Cuomo said in a statement. “The Excelsior Scholarship will make college accessible to thousands of working and middle class students and shows the difference that government can make.” 

The cost of the Excelsior Scholarship is included in the state’s 2018 budget — which also allots $8 million to provide educational resources like e-books to CUNY and SUNY students.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, tweeted his support for the program. 

The program, starting this fall, will include students with a household income up to $100,000. This will be expanded to include students with a household income of up to $125,000 by 2019. 

Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, said the program could have unintended consequences — in part because of the increased cost of tuition for students above the financial cutoff. 

“Right now they’re saying tuition will cost $200 extra per year,” she said. “I think they’ll find that it won’t be enough, and that it will continue to go up.”

Robinson said some students around the cutoff might view it as arbitrary if a student whose family makes $125,000 per year receives free tuition and a student whose family makes $130,000 per year has to pay extra.

“I’m very concerned about that, and I think the cost difference between those who have to pay and those don’t will cause students to look around,” she said. “It may be that many students who would have to pay decide that they don’t want to go to these schools because they may see it as an arbitrary cutoff rate.”

A program like this would be hard to implement in North Carolina since the state already subsidizes public universities at a high rate, Robinson said. 

“But in order to make it free, the additional amount of money the General Assembly or students would have to come up with would be very high,” she said. “In order to do that it would be very tough, and frankly there’s not a political will to do that here.”

Tamara Draut is vice president of policy and research at Demos, a liberal-leaning think tank. While Demos applauds New York for the program, she said in a statement that the organization thinks the state could do more to help students graduate debt-free. 

“The reality of the college affordability crisis is that half of the costs of going to college are related to expenses other than tuition,” Draut said. “New York State’s program could be more beneficial for struggling students by waiving tuition upfront and allowing grant aid to cover other college costs such as books, fees and living expenses.”

She said Demos urges New York and other states to consider all parts of college affordability. A true guarantee of debt-free public college would mean a student could pay for all college expenses by working a part-time job, Draut said.

“And as states begin to lead the way with plans to remedy the growing college debt crisis, we urge Congress to pass a national bill to create a federal-state partnership to reinvigorate investment in higher education and guarantee debt-free college for all," she said.

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