Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a proposal to make college tuition-free for New York’s middle-class families at all SUNY and CUNY two- and four-year colleges. Cuomo made the announcement at LaGuardia Community College, alongside U.S. Senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Called the Excelsior Scholarship, it is the first of its kind in the nation and aims to help alleviate the student debt and give thousands of students the opportunity to go to college.

Under the proposal, more than 940,000 middle-class families and individuals making up to $125,000 per year would qualify to attend college tuition-free at all public colleges and universities in New York State.

“A college education is not a luxury,” Cuomo said. “It is an absolute necessity for any chance at economic mobility, and with these first-in-the-nation Excelsior Scholarships, we’re providing the opportunity for New Yorkers to succeed, no matter what ZIP code they come from and without the anchor of student debt weighing them down. New York is making a major investment in our greatest asset—our people—and supporting the dreams and ambitions of those who want a better life and are willing to work hard for it.”

The Excelsior Scholarship, requires participating students to be enrolled at a SUNY or CUNY two- or four-year college full-time. Currently, 80 percent of households statewide make $125,000 or less, with an estimated 940,000 households having college-aged children who would be eligible for the program. The plan will cost approximately $163 million per year once fully phased in.
The plan would also increase the number of Blacks who attain higher education. According to the U.S. Census, New York ranks No. 10 in the nation with the number of African-Americans age 25 and over with bachelor’s degrees, with 20.9 percent having one.

“This is what college affordability is all about,” said SUNY Chairman Carl McCall. “Governor Cuomo’s plan will ensure true success for our students while also protecting the state’s investment in public higher education. SUNY strongly supports the Excelsior Scholarship Program, and we will be making it a top priority in the upcoming budget session.”

Brooklyn College graduate and City Council Member Jumaane Williams said the plan would not only help students by not causing debt but also help the economy.

“There’s a precedence for the governor’s move,” he said. “The biggest expansion of the CUNY system was during the Great Depression because it was believed education would lift the country out of the recession.”

George Gresham, president of 1199SEIU, said that free college tuition would put the city in the position to be ahead in producing workers for jobs in technology.

“Working families have been facing rising student debt and stagnant incomes for decades now, and higher education began to seem like it was only viable for the privileged few,” said Gresham. “It is vital that everyone has the opportunity to go to college so that working people can get ahead and America can be a global leader in today’s information economy.”

Although the governor’s plan sounds good to many, some feel Cuomo should ensure adequate funding for public elementary and high schools so students can qualify for admission to colleges.

“While offering free college tuition to low-income families is laudable, the reality is that many students’ paths to college are limited because their local K-12 public schools lack the resources to support them,” said Jasmine Gripper, legislative and policy director of the Alliance for Quality Education. “Governor Cuomo has continuously refused to make the proper investments necessary for K-12 education statewide. This announcement is bypassing the very basic, yet extremely urgent, step of fully funding K-12 education statewide in a way that rejects the longstanding racial and economic educational inequity in New York.”