“Free” College in New York

You may have heard the rumors buzzing about tuition-free education programs in New York. If you’re like me, you gave into the click bait with media headlines like, “Free College Tuition”, or “Gov. Cuomo’s Tuition-Free Legislation Passed!” However, if you do some quick research you will arrive at the disappointing realization that “free college” isn’t at all what the legislators in New York passed.

I was naive to think that free tuition would ever pass in our country when I initially read the boasting headlines. New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo began the concept last fall and the framework followed suit, passing legislation a year after. The Excelsior Scholarship is an experimental program designed with the intent to help middle-class students in the State Universities of New York and City Universities of New York (SUNY, CUNY) education systems. They are composed of both two-year degree schools and four-year universities. The alluring aspect is that individuals and families making under $125,000 a year can qualify for the scholarship, but just like any other pieces of too-good-to-be-true legislation, the devil resides in the details.

Firstly, The Excelsior Scholarship is limited to full-time students, requiring 30 hours per year for applicability which leaves out typical students who have to work, sometimes sacrificing those mandatory hours that qualify them as full-time. Unfortunately, this renders 90 percent of community college students in the SUNY/CUNY education system unqualified for the scholarship.

Colleges and universities in a SUNY/CUNY school are relatively cheap to begin with. Students falling considerably lower than the middle class line who receive federal pell grants or state aid often have the majority of their tuition covered. Considering this is a program designed to supplement existing financial aid and resources, the Excelsior Scholarship cannot be used for room and board, books or other living expenses – things that many of these students need help with desperately.

Another detail in the fine print of the Excelsior Scholarship mandates that every student who accepts the aid must work in New York for the total time that they used the scholarship. The decree can be hindering for those seeking to attend out-of-state grad school programs or even military service for example. If they break the agreement the scholarship is to be returned in the form of another burdening loan. You have to hope that opportunity calls in the Big Apple or face further debt.

There is a lot more speculation than positive feedback for the bill that passed. People that oppose the bill suggest that the legislation formed and passed too quickly and it fails to resolve the financial issues plaguing those with less economic opportunity. It only benefits a small portion of middle-class students and even then the restrictions after graduation seem encumbering. The Excelsior Scholarship is a progressive step in a direction we would all love to bare witness – a nationwide, no-strings-attached, bipartisan program that gets students with little resources an equal shot at a degree. A direction that helps middle-class families send their child to college with no mobility restrictions upon graduation and a cause that even Betsy DeVos can get behind.

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