The state’s $153 billion budget agreement includes a measure offering free SUNY tuition to income-eligible students.
Jon Campbell / Albany Bureau
ALBANY – A New York budget agreement being approved this weekend will mean households with incomes less than $100,000 can get free SUNY tuition starting this fall.
The free tuition plan was among the measures agreed to after tense budget negotiations that caused Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature to miss the March 31 deadline to have a spending plan in place.
The budget includes the free tuition, raising the age of criminality from 16 to 18 and allowing places outside New York City to have ride-hailing services, like Uber and Lyft,
The tuition piece was one Cuomo said would serve as a national model to improve college affordability. When he announced the proposal in January, he was joined by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the former presidential candidate who has pushed for free college.
Tuition at the state’s colleges and universities is $6,470.
“This is the difference that government can make,” Cuomo told reporters Friday night.
“There is no child who will go to sleep tonight and say, ‘I have great dreams, but I don’t believe I’ll be able to get a college education because Mommy and Daddy can’t afford it.'”
The budget language on the “Excelsior Scholarship” program was released early Saturday, and lawmakers were expected to approve in the $153 billion budget Saturday and Sunday.
Here are the key provisions:
Am I eligible?
You would be eligible if your adjusted gross income is below $125,000 over the next three years.
It will be phased in: available this fall for households making up to $100,000 annually; to $110,000 in 2018; and $125,000 in 2019.
When fully phased in, Cuomo’s estimated that 940,000 people would qualify for the program at the state’s 64 campuses.
With 443,000 students, New York has the largest public college system in the nation.
But if you’re not eligible, you will likely pay more for SUNY tuition.
The budget gives the SUNY Board of Trustees the ability to increase tuition up to $200 a year for three years on those earn more than the tuition-free threshold.
Some lawmakers knocked the tuition increase for some, but free tuition for others.
“It’s shocking to me how the governor can, out of one side of his mouth, propose free tuition for a small group of select students while out of the other side of his mouth, advocate for tuition hikes on a dramatically larger set of students,” said Assemblyman James Skoufis, D-Woodbury, Orange County.
Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi criticized Skoufis.
“If Skoufis thinks 80 percent of all New York families is too few students, he should go back to school himself and take a remedial math course,” Azzopardi said.
How will it work?
Local high school students tell of the importance of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal for free-tuition for SUNY and CUNY schools. (March 2, 2017)
Tuition, of course, is just one piece of college costs. SUNY said tuition, room and board and fees come to $20,700 a year.
Then it’s about $4,000 more for books, expenses and transportation, SUNY estimated.
The budget language indicates that students would technically get up to $5,500 for tuition using a variation of the current Tuition Assistance Program, which already covered a significant portion of tuition for low-income students.
The remainder of the tuition, state officials said, would be picked up by the state and reimbursed fully to the public colleges.
The state pegs the annual cost at $163 million, though lawmakers have charged it will be much greater.
Overall, the state budget includes $7.5 billion in aid for higher education, 6.3 percent increase over last year.
“Including the Excelsior Scholarship and predictable tuition in the budget is a strong statement of support for SUNY and allows more families access to a quality, affordable education,” Heidi Macpherson, president of The College at Brockport, said in a statement.
What’s the fine print?
To get the free tuition:
- Students have to be enrolled full time and average 30 credits a year, which could include summer and winter-break classes. There are some exemptions, though, for students facing specific hardships.
- There’s no specific grade-point average needed to get the free tuition, as some lawmakers sought. The compromise is that the enrollees need to “maintain a grade point average necessary for the successful completion of their coursework.”
- The other piece: The students need to live and work in-state for the same number of years they received the money, which is available for up to five years of college — if the program they are entered into is a five-year program. Otherwise, the tuition would cover four years of college.
What else is there?
Private colleges will get more tuition assistance help to compete with the new attraction to SUNY, and SUNY landed another important measure in the tuition package: a maintenance of effort provision.
The language means that SUNY’s state funding would not be lowered compared to the prior fiscal year unless the “governor declares a fiscal emergency.”
SUNY officials have long sought the provision to ensure state funding would not be cut.
“Additional multi-year support in the form of maintenance of effort and capital funding will provide financial stability for our university system and allow our state-operated campuses to plan for future growth while also protecting an aging infrastructure,” SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher and Board of Trustees Chairman Carl McCall said in a statement.
Joseph Spector is chief of the USA TODAY Network’s Albany Bureau.
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