Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Governor Cuomo's Free Tuition Expansion

By Emily BramhallPublished January 1, 2017

New York Governor Cuomo's Excelsior Scholarship expands tuition-free college to the middle-class New Yorkers. However, the scholarship comes with stringent requirements that emphasizes on-time graduation, and these requirements may actually be a barrier to college completion for some.

Earlier this year, Governor Cuomo announced an exciting proposal to expand college access to families across New York State. His Excelsior Scholarship will provide free tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools to students from households with incomes under $125,000 a year. This policy would relieve much of the burden of college tuition and debt from a great deal of New York's middle class students and their families. The scholarship is estimated to reach 940,000 more families than the tuition assistance in place. With this announcement, Cuomo is taking a step to increase opportunity in New York and to make a college education a reality for many more New Yorkers.

Despite the free tuition, there are aspects of the policy that may cause strain for eligible students. Foremost, students must be enrolled in a SUNY or CUNY institution full-time, rather than part-time. Students are required to finish their associates degrees in two years or their bachelor's degrees in four years in order to qualify for the funding. The proposal also requires that students take an average of 15 credits per semester. If a student were to take fewer than this amount for one semester, they must increase their course load to make up these credits in a future semester. Additionally, this 15 credits may only be for courses that apply to their major and graduation requires. Courses taken outside of their course of study will also disqualify them from funding.

This strict policy may have adverse effects for the set of students that it aims to aid. That is, first-generation students. Overall, first-time, full-time students pursuing bachelor's degrees do not have high rates of degree completion in four years. In the CUNY schools, only 22% of these first-time students completed their bachelor's degree in four years. For those pursuing an associate's degree, only 3% of students graduated after two-years. However, given more time, these rates do increase. For a bachelor's degree, the graduation rate is a higher after six years, at 54%. After four years, 20% of first-time full-time students pursuing associate's degrees have graduated. On average, first-time students take longer than the allotted amount of time to complete their degrees and the Excelsior Scholarship cuts off this option for students who may need it in order to successfully graduate.  

College students who qualify for the scholarship must balance a full-time course load, keep track of requirements, and perhaps report to a job, among other commitments. Cuomo's wide-spread free college tuition will undoubtedly make college more accessible, however, given past graduation rates, it is also apparent that the stringent requirements of Cuomo's proposals may fail to be most effective in promoting college completion. With this being said, Cuomo's policy will still allow for many more students to enroll in a university and stay on track to finish their degree on time. In order to better serve students that qualify for the the scholarship, CUNY and SUNY schools should have the supports in place to keep students well-informed of the requirements needed to maintain funding, and to help them along the way.  

Cuomo's proposal has not yet passed through the state legislature. There are also two other proposals regarding college tuition from the Assembly and the Senate that must be considered. The Assembly's proposal would offer more aid to low-income students. This proposal is also paired with more flexible requirements, however it would not reach the same range of household incomes as Governor Cuomo's. The Senate's proposal would also allow for aid at private colleges and universities rather than just SUNY and CUNY schools. The exciting aspect of the Excelsior Scholarship is its aim to expand college access to those who are on the cusp between being able to afford college and not. The proposal will also have great implications for students who would otherwise suffer large amounts of student debt after graduation. Though it has flaws, these flaws can be helped through systems of information and support for students. All things considered, the Excelsior Scholarship is the best option to increase educational opportunity for New York's students and families