New York lawmakers approve free middle class college tuition

ALBANY, N.Y. — New York is making tuition at public colleges and universities free for middle-class residents.

In the state budget approved over the weekend, households with incomes less than $100,000 can get free tuition at State University of New York schools starting this fall.

New York's Senate approved the $153 billion budget Sunday, a day after the Assembly approved it. The state budget was approved nearly nine days late, having missed the start of the state's fiscal year, which began April 1. The vote in the Legislature ended the lingering budget impasse between New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers.

The tuition plan, which Cuomo, a Democrat, proposed in January, will cost an estimated $163 million. Cuomo said the tuition plan would serve as a national model to improve college affordability.

Tuition at the state's colleges and universities is $6,470.

"This is the difference that government can make," Cuomo told reporters Friday night. "There is no child who will go to sleep tonight and say I have great dreams, but I don’t believe I’ll be able to get a college education because mommy and daddy can’t afford it."

Here are the key provisions of the "Excelsior Scholarship" program:

Students are eligible if their family's adjusted gross income is below $125,000 over the next three years.

It will be phased in: available this fall for households making up to $100,000 annually; to $110,000 in 2018; and $125,000 in 2019.

When fully phased in, Cuomo has estimated that 940,000 people would qualify for the program at the state's 64 campuses.

With 443,000 students, New York has the largest public college system in the nation.

If not eligible, the student will probably pay more for SUNY tuition.

The budget gives the SUNY Board of Trustees the ability to increase tuition up to $200 a year for three years on those who earn more than the tuition-free threshold.

Some lawmakers knocked the tuition increase on some, but free tuition for others.

“It’s shocking to me how the governor can, out of one side of his mouth, propose free tuition for a small group of select students while out of the other side of his mouth, advocate for tuition hikes on a dramatically larger set of students,” said Assemblyman James Skoufis, a Democrat from Woodbury, N.Y.

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi criticized Skoufis.

"If Skoufis thinks 80% of all New York families is too few students, he should go back to school himself and take a remedial math course," Azzopardi said.

How will it work?

Tuition is just one piece of college's costs. SUNY said tuition, room and board and fees come to $20,700 a year.

Then it's about an additional $4,000 for books, expenses and transportation, SUNY estimated.

The budget language indicates that students would technically get up to $5,500 for tuition using a variety of current tuition assistance programs — which already covered a significant portion of tuition for low-income students.

More:Can student loans cut hundreds off your taxes?

The remainder of the tuition, state officials said, would be picked up by the state: reimbursed fully to the public colleges.

The state pegs the annual cost at $163 million, though lawmakers have charged it will be much greater.

Overall, the state budget includes $7.5 billion in aid for higher education, a 6.3% increase over last year.

"Including the Excelsior Scholarship and predictable tuition in the budget is a strong statement of support for SUNY and allows more families access to a quality, affordable education," SUNY Brockport President Heidi Macpherson said in a statement.

What's the fine print?

The "scholars" have to take a full course-load and get good grades to get the free tuition.

Students have to be enrolled full time and average 30 credits a year — which could include summer and winter-break classes.

There are some exemptions, though, for students facing specific hardships.

There's no specific grade-point average needed to get the free tuition, as some lawmakers sought.

The compromise is that the enrollees need to "maintain a grade-point average necessary for the successful completion of their coursework."

The other piece: The students need to live and work in-state for the same number of years they received the money, which is available for up to five years of college — if the program they are entered into is a five-year program.

Otherwise, the tuition would cover four years of college.

© 2017 Associated Press


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