The Excelsior Scholarships Program – Tuition-free College in New York

By James Dail (CMC ‘20)

Student loan debt is crushing the newest members of the U.S. workforce. In 2014, the average amount of student loan debt held in the United States was $28,950.[1] With this consideration, it is not a surprise that Senator Bernie Sanders gained widespread support in the Democratic primary by placing this issue at the forefront during the campaign. However, it caused a sharp divide in the party between Sanders’ supportive social democrats and Clinton’s old guard, who were worried about the plan’s massive cost.

In the wake of the Democratic defeat in the presidential election, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is attempting to bring Sanders’ brainchild into the mainstream. He has two primary goals in mind. The first is to show the country what progressive policies can accomplish by providing a stark contrast to the Trump administration. The second is to provide community college to all students free of cost and expand community college programs, using the examples set by Tennessee and Oregon. The plan itself is a replica of the one that Secretary Clinton co-authored with Senator Sanders after the latter’s defeat in the presidential campaign.[2] In putting it forth, Cuomo is able to keep the spirit of Sanders’ idealism in the plan while throwing a bone to Clinton’s supporters by offering a tuition-free education only to those most in need. Though it does not fully correspond to his original vision, Sanders ensured the support of his base by providing the plan with an euphoric endorsement.

The plan, deemed the Excelsior Scholarships Program, provides free tuition for students of families earning less than $125,000 a year at any City or State University at New York. Students coming from families earning at or above this threshold will pay full in-state tuition. Additionally, it also provides free tuition at any New York community college.[3] The plan will raise the maximum qualifying income threshold every year so as to ease the strain placed upon state finances. It will begin in the fall of 2017, when families making less than $100,000 per year will be eligible. The threshold will be raised to $110,000 in 2018, followed by the final increase to $125,000 in 2019.[4] This slow phasing in will provide both Cuomo and the New York State Legislature time to consider the burden placed upon state finances, and whether the $125,000 qualifying threshold may be too high. The governor placed the program’s estimated cost at $163 million, a number that several state legislators believe is too low.3

Though it is lauded for providing needed relief to students at a time when college costs are soaring, the plan is not without its critics. Universities that are part of the CUNY and SUNY systems are worried that the plan may cause an enrollment increase due to an increase in demand.[5] This has the potential to lead to far tougher admissions standards in order to limit enrollment – which is concerning given that CUNY especially prides itself on providing social mobility for its students.[6] Another criticism of the plan is that while it helps many middle class students, it ends up failing the poor because it fails to cover room and board. The combined cost of room and board, fees, and the average rate of books and supplies is $15,520 at SUNY. At CUNY, the cost is $12,225.[7] Though middle-class students would still face these costs, they are in a much better financial position to endure them. Poor students will have a far-harder time covering these expenses.

With student loan debt being such a pressing issue at the forefront of the minds of young Americans, something needs to be done. Cuomo’s plan provides a solid start. Though it does more for the middle class than for the poor, the plan provides aid for everyone who could have trouble affording a college-education without a loan. Furthermore, annually raising the maximum qualifying income threshold will allow New York to test how much aid it can afford to give. If it works, other states will have a clear example to follow. The nation will be watching.









[1] “Student Debt and the Class of 2014.” The Institute for College Access and Success


[2] Seltzer, Rick. “New York’s Tuition-free Plan Sparks Debate.” Inside Higher Ed


[3] McKinley, Jesse. “Cuomo Proposes Free Tuition at New York State Colleges for Eligible Students.” The New York Times


[4] Campanile, Carl. “Cuomo Provides Free College Tuition for Struggling Families.” The New York Post

[5] Murphy, James. “The Gaps in New York’s Free-College Plan.” The Atlantic

[6] “CUNY Graduates Lead Nation in 2016 Social Mobility Index.” CUNY Newswire. The City of New York


[7] “Comparing College Costs.” The City University of New York

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