Paying for New York’s Free College Tuition Plan

January 12, 2017 10:39 am Last Updated: January 13, 2017 1:50 pm

NEW YORK—Gov. Andrew Cuomo estimates it will cost $163 million a year to provide tuition-free public college to New Yorkers with a family income of under $125,000.

But budget watchdogs aren’t convinced the number is in the right ballpark and Cuomo hasn’t specified how the estimate was calculated.

“It seems low,” commented Maria Doulis, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission.

Edmund McMahon, the Empire Center for Public Policy’s research director, even called it “extremely low” in a Jan. 5 article.

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“I don’t think the Governor’s office provides enough details to really understand its estimate,” said Doug Turetsky, spokesman for the New York City Independent Budget Office.

Epoch Times attempted to validate Cuomo’s $163 million estimate based on data provided by SUNY and available online.

The result: It would cost almost $500 million to cover tuition for about 85,000 students who would be eligible for Cuomo’s program, but likely receive little to no financial aid.

The above estimate considers eligibility for federal aid, but not state aid. The two, however, largely overlap.

An official from the governor’s office indicated Cuomo doesn’t expect a deluge of applicants for the new program. She also said the cost estimate may change.

Who Would Benefit?

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo talks about his plan for tuition-free public college for families of income under $125,000 at his State of the State address in New York, Jan. 9, 2017. (Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo talks about his plan for tuition-free public college for families of income under $125,000 at his State of the State address in New York, Jan. 9, 2017. (Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

The program, called the Excelsior Scholarship, would apply to full-time, in-state students at two- and four-year CUNY and SUNY colleges who are on their way to graduating on time. For students who already receive other grants, it would top up the grant to cover their tuition.

The most benefits would go to the tens of thousands of students who fall above the $70,000 income bracket and aren’t currently eligible for much aid.

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Sabrena Sabet, 19, is one of the lucky ones—she already gets free college tuition.

Sabet hails from a typical middle-class family whose income of $60,000 lands just above the New York City median of $53,000. She attends a public school, Baruch College, and would be eligible for tuition-free study under the new program, but state and federal grants already cover her tuition comfortably.

Though increasing, tuition at the state public colleges within the SUNY and CUNY systems is still among the cheapest in the nation, ranging from $4,350 at a community college to $6,470 at a four-year college for in-state students.

It’s the other expenses, like housing and books, that become increasingly difficult for some families. The colleges estimate students pay as much as $10,000 a year to cover such expenses.

Possible Resistance

Cuomo’s proposal has a chance to pass the state legislature, since both Democrats and Republicans have favored college aid in the past. The state already spends about $1 billion a year for that purpose.

But he may still encounter resistance.

Democrats, who hold the state assembly, may not like the program because it helps middle-class families but not poor ones.

Republicans, who rule the state senate with the help of Democratic defectors, may question the cost.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ran for president on a campaign promise of free college, joined Cuomo on stage for the announcement at LaGuardia Community College in Queens on Jan. 3.

“If New York state does it this year, mark my words, state after state will follow,” Sanders said via livestream.

More details are expected with Cuomo’s next budget proposal, likely to be released on Jan. 17.