New York becomes first state to offer free four-year college tuition

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Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, arrives at Trump Tower in New York City, U.S. January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith - RTSW3Z3

Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, speaking in New York City in January, 2017. Credit: REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law Wednesday providing free tuition to students attending the state’s public colleges and universities, making New York the first state to offer free four-year college.

The New York legislature greenlit the program last week as a part of the state budget. With the stroke of his pen, Cuomo made the program official Wednesday at a ceremony attended by supporters of the measure, including Former Secretary of State and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

“We are restoring the promise of the American Dream for the next generation and forging a bold path forward of access and opportunity for the rest of the nation to follow,” Cuomo said, surrounded by supporters, including students from New York’s public universities.

“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,” he said.

Funds from the program will be available exclusively for tuition purposes, meaning that students will still need to find other resources to pay for room, board and other indirect fees. Like programs in other states, New York students will only receive tuition subsidies to cover costs that are not paid for by other grants.

Students in New York whose families make less than $100,000 per year — an income limit that will be raised to $125,000 in two years — will be eligible for the grant if they enroll full-time at any community college or public university in the state.

San Francisco became the first city earlier this year to offer free community college tuition to its residents.

And Rhode Island is now considering a similar measure, which would make two years of college free for in-state students. The scholarship would cover tuition for students regardless of income at public colleges. Like the New York program, it would only apply to full-time students, but it would cover either the first two years of community college or the last two years of university.

Other states already offer their own tuition subsidies, including Kentucky, Oregon, Tennessee and Minnesota. These programs cover remaining tuition fees after state and federal grant aid, with varying eligibility requirements.

Republicans in the New York state senate also successfully lobbied to force students to live and work in the state of New York for as many years as they received aid. If they do not, their grant will turn into a loan. Moreover, only students enrolled full-time will be eligible, even though about one-third of students in New York public universities are enrolled part-time, according to the most recent data available.

Some professors argue that forcing beneficiaries to stay in the state after graduation will cost them more money.

Meanwhile, others note that the full-time enrollment requirement will make many ineligible.

But some education advocates are commending that part of the bill.

“The program’s 30-credit requirement [a full course load in the state] – which has been criticized by some – is a research-proven strategy to raise GPAs, increase retention rates and ultimately boost college completion in the state,” Tom Sugar, president of Complete College America, said in a statement posted online.

Restrictions aside, New York’s program has been hailed as an example for other states looking to promote higher education. Sanders made free college a central message of his presidential campaign last year and has been a strong proponent of New York’s law.

Last week, Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state introduced bills to the Senate and House to make public higher education free for students whose families make up to $125,000. But the bill has no Republican support and is unlikely to get a hearing.

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