New York declared a small victory for middle-class families, becoming the first state to make tuition free for students at public two and four-year institutions, as part of the new state budget’s Excelsior Scholarship program.

Cheers probably went up in all of the 64 SUNY/CUNY colleges and universities in New York State this past Monday, as news broke that tuition is now free to all in-state residents attending those higher institutions of learning, whose families earn less than $125,000 per year.

The Excelsior Scholarship was first introduced back in January by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said he wanted to have higher education as a possibility for all middle-class New York families.

“With a college education now a necessity to succeed in today’s economy, I am proud to sign this first-in-the-nation legislation that will make college accessible, strengthen the middle class, and build a brighter future for all New Yorkers,” Cuomo said after officially signing the legislation to enact the scholarship.

The scholarship will cost an estimated $163 million and include nearly 80 percent of 940,000 New York households. As a progressive initiative, over the course of three years in-state students whose families earn $125,000 or less will be eligible for the scholarship. Prospective students’ families who earn less that $100,000 can obtain the scholarship as early as fall 2017.

By a single stroke of a pen, after much backroom conversation, on the floor negotiations, in public and out-of-sight horse-trading, the man who many are saying is vying for a place in the 2020 presidential bid, signed off Tuesday (April 12, 2017) at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, on a new bill that guarantees impossible dreams could suddenly be realized. Cash-strapped Ray Ray and overachieving Maya can go to college after all. Tuition is free.

“Not so fast,” declared the “devil is in the details” analyst Assemblyman Charles Barron.

“CUNY/SUNY tuition is raised!” declared Barron. “The state budget agreement has in it a $200-a-year tuition hike for four years for CUNY/SUNY students. Incredibly and contradictorily Governor Cuomo says out of one side of his mouth, ‘free tuition,’ then out of the other side of his mouth ‘raise tuition.’ What a hypocrite! If tuition was free, then you would not need a scholarship to pay for it. Then you could use your grant money to pay for non-tuition costs like text books, room and board, food and transportation, college debt and fees.

“There are 900,000 students registered at CUNY/SUNY schools. T.A.P. and Pell grants pay tuition for 180,000 students. The governor’s Excelsior scholarships for middle-class students registered for 15 credits per semester will only cover 33,000 students. Over 690,000 CUNY/SUNY students will have to pay tuition, including the $200 tuition increase!”

Barron noted, “The state budget gives the governor $124 million this fiscal year to provide families with a yearly household income as high as $125,000 [by 2019] with an Excelsior Scholarship to pay their tuition. This scholarship is geared for middle-class students and for tuition only. There is a hitch to this scholarship, upon graduation students have to stay in New York for the same amount of years they received the scholarship. If they leave, their scholarship money is converted into a student loan that they have to pay back. Poor struggling students who come from low-income families are already getting their tuition payed for by T. A.P. Their challenge is paying the non-tuition costs, i.e., text books [can be as high as $2,500 a year], college fees [can be as high as $1,300 a year], food, transportation, child care, room and board, and college debt. This cost can be as high as $20,000 a year. The Excelsior Scholarship doesn’t help poor students because they can’t apply for it to help them with non-tuition costs. This state budget prioritizes middle-class families over poor struggling working class family who are predominantly Black and Brown. Race and class still matters!”

President of the Student Assembly at SUNY, Marc Cohen says many people wondered why the scholarship focused primarily on the middle class and wasn’t geared toward supporting students at the lowest level.

“There are many programs in place already in terms of PELL, Perkins, TAP and EOP and other aid programs that are available to students in those [lower-income] demographics,” said Cohen. “What this does is, it’s a program that recognizes—yes, your family may be making $100,000 and no, that does not mean you’re poor but, at the same time you still may be struggling to pay for everything that’s incorporated within living your life.”

Referred to as the “last mile” program, the scholarship will cover any remaining balances after the state’s TAP and PELL funding have already been applied.

Among the announcement of the new initiative, there has been some concerns over the limitations of the scholarship. For example, students who receive the Excelsior Scholarship must live and work in New York after graduation. If a student decides to leave the state, the scholarship will be converted into a loan that will have to be paid back. However, students are only required to remain in state for the same number of years they have received the scholarship.

Gov. Cuomo said he added this requirement to protect the state’s investment in a student’s education.

Cohen says that it is extremely difficult to look at students who have been working to build a life for themselves and their families and tell them, “I’m sorry, I know that you’ve got this outstanding job offer out-of-state, but you’re not allowed to take it.” However, he hopes that this clause will allow others to see the greater need for more job opportunities in New York

Brooklyn communications freshman Osato A., told the Amsterdam News, “We were all excited Monday at school, we thought ‘Yaay, free tuition for everyone, and all our younger siblings can go to school for free.’ Then we saw the four-year clause, which means we have to stay in New York, even if we get a huge job offer out of state. Suddenly, everybody had to re-evaluate.”

“New York state is doing far better than we once were in terms of providing good paying strong jobs to college graduates and I think that it makes sense for New York taxpayers to want a return on their investment,” said Cohen. “I’m hoping that what this new Excelsior Scholarship does is to encourage businesses to create those opportunities for more people for good-paying jobs.”

The news of the Excelsior Scholarship has sparked conversation among CUNY and SUNY alum who are currently struggling to pay off large amounts of debt. Many are wondering if they will still have to pay off their debts with this new tuition initiative having taken place.

“We have to be forward looking, we have to recognize that things for former generations were very difficult and things right now are still difficult but, just because there are those other loans that exist and there are people out there who have to pay back those loans, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide opportunities for the future,” said Cohen.

He encourages others to take advantage of the programs that have been provided to help with these issues but doesn’t believe past debt should hinder the opportunities of the future.

“There are other federal and state programs that are intended to help people pay off their loans,” said Cohen. “I do not subscribe to the notion that we have to suffer with unconscionable debt, therefore so should you. I don’t think that that’s fair.”

The Excelsior Scholarship, which doesn’t cover textbooks, food, room and board or grad school, has left some to ask, “How free is free?”

“There’s more work to do in terms of funding for a number of programs and aspects of public higher education, like textbook availability, mental health resources, food and security,” said Cohen. “These are all critical items that the student assembly is not going to let fall by the waste side.”

News of tuition-free college has sparked national coverage, leaving many young adults wondering if their home states will be following the footsteps of New York.

“The state of New York has proven time and time again to be a leader nationally in many aspects,” said Cohen. “This is no exception. I hope states around our country continue to follow suit with New York and take a page out of our book and recognize that this issue is important. Public higher education is the single greatest investment we can make of our future.”

Approved by both the Assembly and the Senate Friday night, the $153 billion budget the legislature and the Governor titled “The Middle Class Recovery Act” is intended to create a path forward and upward for New York families. It cuts taxes to their lowest level in 70 years, makes New York the first-in-the-nation to provide tuition-free college at public universities, advances the $100 billion infrastructure program and creates good-paying jobs across the state.

Alongside the $10 million animal shelter and infrastructure of local fairs’ allocation of state funds, Cuomo announced that the FY 2018 State Budget commits $10 million to the Liberty Defense Project, “which will provide free legal assistance to immigrants and ensure all New Yorkers have access to representation, regardless of their citizenship status.” 

Cuomo said, “It would provide legal services to new immigrants. … This is a nation of laws. And before you deport anyone, they have a right to have their legal guidance demonstrated, supported and exercised. Now, that is easier said than done. Between counsels, access to counsel, ability to pay counsel and that is what this defense project does. It provides legal services for new immigrants.” Barron added, “We should be careful as to applauding this budget without first checking all the details. For example, the Raise The Age portion of the budget is not a victory at all. Far from it, in fact. Actually 18-year-olds won’t be included until 2019. Thousands will be sent to adult prisons by then.”

Writing an op-ed in this week’s Amsterdam News titled “Why I Didn’t Vote for ‘The Big Ugly’ (the state budget),” Barron stated, “NYS owes $4.3 billion to high needs schools in predominantly Black and Brown communities. The NYS Board of Regents said that the state should pay at least $1.4 billion of the debt this fiscal year to begin the process of making them whole. Governor Cuomo proposed an insulting measly $428 million. The final compromised agreement was $650 million out of a $150 billion plus budget. This is unconscionable and unacceptable! Our children are too precious for us to fail them! An investment in our children is an investment in our future!”