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Bill Would Expand Free Tuition Program

Democrats in the state Assembly want to make it free for qualified students to attend State University of New York or City University of New York colleges.

The bill (A.8616), titled “Tuition-Free NY,” was introduced in the Assembly on Oct. 2 by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-New York City. Unlike the Excelsior Scholarship passed by the state Legislature as part of the 2018 state budget, Gottfried’s proposal would make any student eligible for in-state tuition rates at a SUNY or CUNY school eligible for the program.

The legislation was previously introduced in 2016, 2017 and 2018 in both the state Assembly and Senate, though it never made it out of committee. Original versions of the legislation included a community service requirement that has now been removed. More than 30 Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors of Gottfried’s new version.

“Through rising higher education costs and skyrocketing student loan obligations, college has become unaffordable for some and a huge financial burden for many more. Tuition-Free NY will help ensure that anyone who wants to attend a two- or four-year SUNY or CUNY institution is able to, regardless of individual or family income,” Gottfried wrote in his legislative justification.

“Further, additional state and local revenue from graduates staying in New York who would otherwise leave (e.g. sales tax, income tax, homeownership). Last, but certainly not least, graduates will have additional disposable income that would otherwise have gone to big bank lenders that will be injected into local economies.”

WHAT’S IN THE BILL?

In addition to qualifying for in-state tuition rates, Gottfried’s legislation would come with some strings attached for students. Students would have to sign a contract to stay in New York state for five years after completing their degree, would be given between three and five years to complete their degree. Students who don’t fulfill the program requirements would have their costs converted to a student loan.

Also, students who use the program would have to apply for the state’s TAP program, which would be applied toward the cost of tuition. Students would be responsible for housing, fees and other non-tuition costs.

WHAT’S NOT IN THE BILL

Namely, a cost or estimate of financial impact. The legislative memo states only that there will be an impact, but no number is attached. The state is already budgeting $163 million for the Excelsior Scholarship program, and one would think Gottfried’s program would cover more prospective students.

Also, critics of the Excelsior Scholarship have complained about the fact that the program only covers tuition while many students have thought they would qualify only to find out they don’t, according to an August 29 story in the Syracuse Post-Standard. The scholarship also covers only the gap left after other state and federal programs are used. The most a student can receive through the Excelsior Scholarship is $5,500.

Gottfried’s legislation leaves much of the state officials to determine the program’s specifics, including designing the application process and how the program would be administered — so there is no guarantee that, as written, “Tuition-Free NY” wouldn’t generate many of the same complaints as the Excelsior Scholarship.

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