New York’s Free College: Promising at First Glance

By Diara J. Townes. May 1, 2017.

Jan 3 — Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (L) and Governor Andrew Cuomo (R) unveil the first proposal of the governor’s 2017 agenda: making college tuition-free for New York’s middle-class families at all SUNY and CUNY two- and four-year colleges. (Photo credit — Kevin P. Coughlin, governor’s office)

New Yorkers in the Class of 2021 could be the first college graduates to leave school debt-free, thanks to a new law by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The Excelsior Scholarship program, passed by state legislators on April 10, allows families earning less than $100,000 a year to send their kids to state and city universities tuition-free, beginning this fall.

That limit will increase to $110,000 in 2018, and capping at $125,000 in 2019. And while New York is the first state to allow free tuition at public four-year institutions, the scholarship is facing some criticism.

The cost of higher education in the United States has risen to worrisome levels.

This first-in-the nation program was supported by Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders, who appeared with Cuomo at LaGuardia Community College in Queens on January 3rd.

Enthusiasm for the proposed legislation spread throughout the auditorium that day, as reported by the Huffington Post. And three months later, on April 10, the excitement reverberated on social media when the proposal became law.

Twitter users Stevie Wong (L), a New York film journalist, and John Sassone, a teacher in New York City, both express their appreciation of the Excelsior Scholarship program. Source: Twitter.

“Eighty percent of the households in this state will qualify for the Excelsior Scholarship,” stated Cuomo in his address to the state assembly.

“You want to talk about a difference government can make? Every child will have the opportunity that an education provides. It’s time to think about the student first, and that’s what this is going to do.”

The cost of higher education in the United States has risen to worrisome levels. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported student loan debt at $1.3 trillion, compared to just over $400 billion in 2006.

Income plays a large role in determining the affordability of higher education. The largest percentage of New York state families that made between $10,000 and $100,000 in 2015 was 60%, with New York City families within this income range at 62%.

Meanwhile, a four-year degree from a city or state university can cost between $17,200 and $26,000. To rise above these costs, Cuomo introduced the Excelsior Scholarship program, with hopes of free tuition for New Yorkers.

The law was not passed without challenges from state legislators, however, who adjusted the terms of the program.

Students must attend school full-time, earning 30 credits in a year (for bachelor’s degrees), and maintain a certain GPA (still to be determined) to remain qualified.

The program doesn’t cover room and board, or books and fees from the university. The student can’t be seeking a second degree either, associate’s or bachelor’s.

Additionally, students will be required to stay in New York for the same amount of time they are covered by the scholarship. If they choose to relocate they will have to repay the amount rewarded as a loan.

Table 1 (L): The median income for New York families was estimated around $72,000 in 2015. Table 2 (R): The median income for New York City families in 2015 was estimated at less than $62,000. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2011-2015 American Community Survey.
College has grown into a necessity since the 1980s, and many Millennials are starting to feel the pains of not attending.

These caveats could still make attending college in the Empire State a hurdle for many. But it wasn’t always a huge ordeal. Graduates like Dadriane Davis, 53, remembered a time when school wasn’t a big drain on the finances.

“I started as a design graphics major at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) in September, 1982. I got to live off campus in a student housing apartment in Freeport, [Long Island] for pretty cheap. And while my parents had to take out a loan to pay for it, they never complained.”

Tuition, room and board at her private, four-year institution averaged $3,400 a year. The average income per person in New York during that time was estimated at $40,000 per household (Gulino, 1983).

After completing one and a half years of school, Davis left NYIT to begin a family. It would be near twenty years before she returned.

College has grown into a necessity since the 1980s, and many Millennials are starting to feel the pains of not attending.

“Trying to figure college out by yourself can be stressful, anxiety-inducing, and a little depressing.”

“A lot of kids my age just couldn’t pay for it.” The lack of affordable education for the city’s middle and low income families is a personal experience for 30-year-old Benny Castro Jr. of the Bronx.

The oldest of four siblings, Castro spent his teenage years helping his mother at home while attending the Repertory Company High School for Theatre Arts in Manhattan.

“I wish my parents had encouraged me to be more creative when I was a kid. Latin families are like ‘you’re going to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or work in a bank.’ So by the time I finished high school, I didn’t want to have anything to do with college.”

But the introduction of the Excelsior Scholarship program inspired a change of heart in the Millennial. “I think it’s a great thing. It’s been working well for other countries for a really long time. America is just very hustle-oriented.”

Castro’s hesitance in 2005 was also due to the overwhelming task of understanding the process on his own.

“Trying to figure [college] out by yourself can be stressful, anxiety-inducing, and a little depressing, but that’s how it is, you know? I wish it didn’t take me this long to realize that, but at least I’m doing it now.”

Community outreach and advocacy organizations like the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation (NMIC) are also reviewing how this new law will impact their efforts.

The non-profit focuses on individuals and families in the northern region of Manhattan island, and the west and south Bronx. One of their many programs that creates and increases the standards of living in the community focuses specifically on college services.

“We help students decide whether college is the right choice, right now. And if it is, we help prepare them by finding the right school, assist them in getting in and [finding ways] to pay for it,” NMIC explained in a statement on the non-profit’s website.

Their services include one-on-one college counseling to narrow down school selections as well as college tours. One of their higher demand services is financial aid planning.

Social media accounts for non-profit and advocacy groups like NMIC are essential in communicating stances on changes to laws and policies in the areas they serve. Source: Twitter.

“Oh, this is so great!” Anna Martinez, a 32 year-old resident of Washington Heights in northern manhattan, reacted happily to the scholarship program.

“One of the girls I used to babysit messaged me on Facebook the other day, saying she’s graduating in May and going to college in September. She told me I inspired her to go. That actually made me cry! She was going to babysit like I did to help cover the costs, but now I don’t think she needs to. I am so happy for her!”

While the terms are viewed positively by rising freshmen and their friends and family, graduated students are reflecting differently. Davis viewed these stipulations as a bigger hurdle than necessary.

In the 1980s, Davis wasn’t aware of financial aid and federal grants. Armed with this knowledge, she returned to NYIT as a full-time student in 1999.

She graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in advertising in May of 2002. She relocated to southeast Virginia with her academic credentials and upwards of $30,000 in student debt.

“While I was really happy to hear about this program in New York, it wouldn’t have worked for me. I had a job waiting for me in Suffolk. It’s been 16 years since I graduated with my degree and I’m still paying for it. If kids nowadays have to choose between staying in the state for four years or moving for a better job and paying it all back, then it’s not really a good choice is it?” Davis believed the decision to stay should be up to the student, not the state.

Castro, on the other hand, took these stipulations in stride. “I know the fine print is a little nitty gritty, and the expectations are high. [But] it takes off that stress of having to work two jobs and go to school for a lot of people. Maybe it’s a sign, you know? I’ve been thinking about getting my degree for a while. Maybe this is the time, and this is my moment.”