New York is the first US state to make college free for those who can’t afford it

There’s a small catch.
There’s a small catch.
Image: Reuters/Max Whittaker
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Under a historic new budget written by governor Andrew Cuomo and approved by state lawmakers over the weekend, nearly one million families in the state of New York will now qualify for free tuition at the state’s public colleges, universities, and community colleges.

The program—the first of its kind in the US, phasing in over the next three years, and costing New York an estimated $163 million—will cover any student who:

  • comes from a household making $100,000 or less (with that threshold rising to $125,000 in 2019)
  • meets certain class load and grade-point restrictions
  • agrees to stay in New York state after graduation for the same number of years that they receive the financial support.

A bachelor’s degree from CUNY and SUNY, New York’s city- and state-run four-year college systems, respectively, currently costs around $6,500 a year; community college tuition runs about $4,500.

New York’s plan revives the free college concept that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders earnestly pushed during his US presidential campaign, and that fellow candidate Hillary Clinton later adopted as well. Many assumed the idea died with the election of Donald Trump—but Cuomo, with help from Sanders, has fought vigorously for several months for the plan to be rolled out in New York.

The plan’s post-graduation living requirement has its critics, and it’s important to note that non-tuition expenses such as books and housing are not covered (and those costs could add up to as much as $15,000 a year at SUNY).

But with the amount of strain most American households are feeling from both soaring tuition and student loan debt these days, offering increased college affordability to middle-class and low-income families is not inconsequential. After all, not going to college has its own cost: The mighty majority of new jobs in the country are going to people with degrees.

New York estimates 940,000 families will benefit from its new policy—but a larger effect will likely be had on the attitudes of other states and their education systems. Predicted Sanders in January: “If New York state does this, mark my words, state after state will follow.”