Free College Tuition in New York State! Too Good to be True?
Do you think college tuition costs too much? So do I!
New York State Legislature just passed an amendment to the state’s Executive Budget, “New York’s Tuition-Free College Degree Program, The Excelsior Scholarship,” that seems to be the answer to thousands of college students’ financial woes. The program, which was passed on April 17th, is receiving enthusiastic news coverage, which presents it as providing free tuition for all students at all of New York State’s public colleges and universities. The New York Times praised it as “a breakthrough and a model for other states that will change the lives of students at public colleges across the state.” Even Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VA) hailed the program as a step towards progress. New York Governor Andrew M.Cuomo proposed this program last January, which has become a talking point for Democrats recently. According to Cuomo:
“Today, college is what high school was — it should always be an option even if you can’t afford it. With this program, every child will have the opportunity that education provides”
But each of these commendations misrepresent what the scholarship actually does for students of New York State.
In truth, a lot is wrong with the Excelsior Scholarship. This program is a step toward affordable tuition, but it is far from good enough. If you read the actual document of the amendment — which we at DailyClout have embedded above — you will see that the press coverage glosses over the more important facts, instead taking government press releases as facts.There are many catches and limitations that make this less than the perfect gift that debt-crippled college students would expect it to be.
The term “free tuition” is a politically handy misnomer. If you actually read the amendment, you can see that this program in fact simply introduces a reduction in tuition. It provides for a partial scholarship to students attending four-year public schools in New York State, not a full scholarship. The fine print shows that “The Excelsior Scholarship” will reduce only the tuition of a four-year degree by $26,000. This is of course a substantial scholarship — but it is not a free ride. The average cost of tuition and extraneous fees (room, board, etc.) for a student in the New York State University system amounts, according to The New York Times, to $83,000 total. So as nice as the reduction is, this program still leaves the remainder of the cost of college, or $57,000, on the backs of New York State students.
It is also not the first of its kind, as press is asserting it to be: While New York is the first state to cover the tuition of four-year public colleges, a small number of states in America — such as Tennessee and Oregon — do already offer free tuition towards two-year public college degrees.
It is true that this program has the potential to save New York’s students thousands of dollars. Nonetheless, many students coming to school in the state may soon be surprised by the still high costs of what is being referred to as “free” college.
And of course, not all students are eligible for this program. The Excelsior Scholarship does have specific requirements that students must meet in order to qualify for help with tuition. An applicant must be from a family that makes a net income of no more than $100,000 per year in order to get the reduction in school fees. Students must also attend school full-time and be on track to graduate within four years, in order to get the help. This disadvantages students who can’t afford to attend university or college full-time — many working class or low-income students need to have part-time jobs in order to make ends meet.
The greatest catch in this program, however, is the fact that, once a student has indeed graduated, he or she must remain a resident of New York State, and work in that state, for the same period of time that he or she spent in earning his or her degree. So if your scholarship reduces fees for the full four years, you would be required to stay in-state for four years after graduation. If you were to graduate early, within three years, your stay in New York State after graduation would be three years. If a graduated student decides to leave the state early, perhaps for a better job opportunity elsewhere, his or her “scholarship” then becomes — catch! A loan.
This set of caveats becomes even more of a problem for recipients of the scholarship when you consider the many students who travel to New York solely to seek and education. At CUNY and SUNY (State University of New York) colleges alone, out-of-state students comprise four to twelve percent of the total student population. Out-of-state students don’t have the safety net of family and friends around them when they graduate, so they may be more likely to leave the state, and then to face the penalty of a “grant” becoming a loan.
According to The Washington Examiner, New York State has one of the nation’s highest numbers of people who do leave the state. While it is easy to understand why New York lawmakers would want to keep educated workforce members in the state for as long as possible, this deal is not fair for many students. After all, New York is a state with a 5.7% unemployment rate, according to the New York Department of Labor. This is higher than the rate of 5.4% in the country as a whole. In New York City in particular, the unemployment rate is a whopping 6.1%. Since most students attend college to build their career skills, it is only natural that they would want to travel after graduation to locations where work could be more easily found.
This new policy also will end up discriminating on the basis of students’ class. The Excelsior Scholarship is a last-dollar program, according to the Washington Post, which means that students who apply for this program must also apply for, and use, other scholarships and financial awards first, such as Pell Grants, which are often loans. This means that lower-income students are stuck with more of their college fees being underwritten by what are basically loans, rather than by straight discounts.
As I am a student who has taken out loans to pay for my education, I believe that The Excelsior Scholarship should be as good as the press that it is receiving. Particularly, I think it should waive the demand that students stay in New York State for four years, as that prioritizes those who can afford to possibly wait out having a tough time finding that initial job in the difficult economy of New York State.
Was New York’s free tuition program everything you thought it was? Better than you could have imagined? Or still in need of major reform? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, share this article throughout your social networks, and contact Governor Cuomo with this article and with your thoughts on twitter @NYGovCuomo.