New York Enacts Free Tuition Proposal

on April 10, 2017

The New York state legislature passed a proposal for free tuition at New York public colleges and universities on April 9, 2017 as part of the state budget. New York is the first state to offer free tuition at both two-year and four-year public colleges and universities.


The Excelsior Scholarship provides free tuition at State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) for state residents earning less than $125,000 a year.


The state will provide up to $5,500 per eligible student through the Excelsior Scholarship program. CUNY and SUNY have committed to waiving the remaining tuition costs for these students.


Eligibility Requirements


In addition to meeting state residency and income requirements, eligible students must be enrolled full time (15 credits per semester and 30 credits per year) and maintain a minimum GPA consistent with successfully completing coursework. There is an exception to the full-time enrollment requirement for students with disabilities.


The free tuition program will be phased across three years, starting with a $100,000 income limit in fall 2017 and increasing to $110,000 in fall 2018 and $125,000 in fall 2019.


Program Provides Last-Dollar Aid


The Excelsior Scholarship is a last-dollar program. As such, it fills in the gaps after other aid, such as the Federal Pell Grant and New York Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), are applied to tuition costs.


Thus, middle-income students get a greater financial benefit than low-income students, because tuition is already covered for many low-income students. Almost half of current SUNY students are already tuition-free after applying the federal and state grants to tuition costs.


Nevertheless, labeling the program as providing free tuition will stimulate an increase in enrollment by low-income students.


Free Tuition Isn’t Entirely Free


Eligible students must pay some costs, such as fees, room, board, textbooks and supplies. Room and board adds about $10,000 to $12,500 a year to college costs. Other costs total about $2,000 to $3,000 a year.


Recognizing that textbook costs can be prohibitive for many low-income students, the budget includes funding for using open educational resources in high-enrollment courses.


Recipients Required to Live and Work in State


In addition to limiting the Excelsior Scholarship to state residents, the program requires recipients to stay in state after graduation. Recipients must agree to live and work in New York one year for each year of support. Otherwise, they will be required to repay the Excelsior Scholarship as a student loan.


The requirement to stay in state can be deferred for students who continue their education out of state as undergraduate or graduate students and for situations involving “extreme hardship.”


A very high percentage of SUNY and CUNY students already stay in state after graduation.


Grant Program for Students at Private Colleges


The budget provides funding for an Enhanced Tuition Award for students enrolled at New York private colleges and universities. The enhanced tuition award program provides a maximum of $3,000 per student, which must be matched by the private college or university. The private colleges and universities must also agree to freeze tuition for tuition award recipients for as long as the students receive the grant.

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