US: New Yorkers can enjoy free tuition at state schools soon
Cuomo had proposed a US$153 billion state budget agreement, which would allow New Yorkers to get free tuition at the state's public colleges and universities. Source: Reuters/Joe Penney

Students from New York can now look forward to free tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities, thanks to a US$153 billion state budget agreement proposed by governor Andrew Cuomo.

According to Washington Post, the bold plan could make New York the largest state to offer its residents with a combined family income of less than US$125,000, to attend college without paying tuition. This means a vast majority of the state’s citizens will likely qualify, as the median household income in New York comes just under US$61,000. Some parties argue, however, the actual number of those that will qualify will be lesser than thought.

“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.

“With this programme, every child will have the opportunity that education provides.” – Cuomo

Under what some advocates call “the nation’s first free-tuition program for middle-class families”, state residents with an annual household income of US$100,000 or less will be able to qualify for the tuition plan, known as the Excelsior Scholarships, from fall of 2017 onwards. The limit will increase to $110,000 in 2018 and to $125,000 in 2019.

For future students who wish to enrol tuition-free at the campuses of the State University of New York or the City University of New York, they must be on full-time courses with at least 30 course credits a year, with leeway given for those facing hardship. A sufficient grade-point average is also required.

In this “last-dollar programme”, the state will foot the bill for any tuition left after federal Pell Grants and New York’s Tuition Assistance Program have been factored in. Textbooks, room and board will not be covered in the plan approved by the State Senate late Sunday after being endorsed by the State Assembly a day earlier.

Critics have called the programme a “sham”, saying it won’t help part-time and low-income students as much as it promises as the eligibility rules, such as the credit quota, could be too stringent on them.

“If a student changes their major, took the wrong courses, or if you drop a course and fall below the credit limit, then you no longer qualify,” said Yonkers Democratic Assemblyman Gary Pretlow to New York Post.

While the left (Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont) and the right (Republicans in the State Senate) approve this tuition-free plan, private colleges say it will hurt their institutions as the budget proposal threatens to strip state funding off them.

From 2018 onwards, state residents who opt to attend private colleges that do not keep their yearly tuition increases under $500 or the higher education rate of inflation (whichever is greater), will no longer get tuition grants from the state.

“You’re not giving the student the money that would help them with the choice of where they want to go to school,” Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities president Mary Beth Labate said to the New York Times.

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