On Wednesday, Andrew Cuomo signed the Excelsior Scholarship bill into law, making New York the first state to offer free four-year public college to middle class families. Tennessee, Oregon and the city of San Francisco already offer free tuition for two-year public colleges, but New York is the first to extend full subsidized tuition to four-year colleges as well. Hillary Clinton attended the ceremonial bill signing alongside Cuomo, and she offered a strong endorsement of the plan, calling it a “beacon of hope.” However, despite how groundbreaking this law is, it has received mixed reviews from critics.
The program will cover the cost of tuition for eligible students, but not room, board or other fees. To qualify, a student’s family must make less than $125,000 a year, and the student must be enrolled in a public state or city university, must maintain a passable grade point average, must not take a semester off during their two or four-year program, and must work in New York state for two to four years after graduation depending on their degree program. If a student works elsewhere during this time period, the tuition grant becomes a college loan that must be repaid. The program will be phased in over the next three years and is expected to cost New York taxpayers $87 million in its first year and $163 million by the third year.
Many experts who have expressed concern with this program, have an issue with forcing new graduates to stay in New York, one of the most expensive places to live in the entire US. Temple University Professor and author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, tweeted, “According to his bill, [Governor Cuomo] rather keep an unemployed college grad in state and on public benefits rather than letting them work in NJ.” In another tweet, she added, “As someone who has worked on almost every free college bill, I promise [Governor Cuomo] won’t be remembered well if he keeps this provision.”
But Cuomo, who did not originally include this clause in the proposed bill, explained why the addition is so important, “Why should New Yorkers pay for your education, and then you take off and you move to California? The concept of investing in you and your education is that you’re going to stay here and be an asset to the state. If you don’t stay here, then you go to California and let them pay for your college education.”
Other critics have complained that the law disqualifies the lowest-income students, who would need to take semesters off to work and save up for college room and board, which are fees that aren’t covered under the Excelsior Scholarship. However, Cuomo has stressed that his new law is designed to specifically assist middle-class families, who do not qualify for the large federal aid provided to lower income students.
Cuomo’s chief of staff, Melissa DeRosa reminded concerned New Yorkers on Tuesday that, “This [law] is something to be proud of. Anytime you do something big, there are the naysayers who come out of the woodwork to criticize it.”