Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s “Excelsior Scholarship” program aims to make more residents eligible for a tuition-free college degree at the state’s public two-year and four-year schools.

But higher education experts, faculty and student leaders statewide, and State University of New York officials — while endorsing the governor’s cornerstone proposal as a dramatic step in reducing students’ cost burden — stop short of calling it free public college, as it was framed last month when Cuomo announced it at LaGuardia Community College with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at his side.

The plan comes as college-bound students and their parents engage in the annual anxiety-laced ritual of determining the amount of financial aid available for the coming academic year, increasingly a factor in choosing a school. And it has inserted SUNY and City University of New York into the national debate about how to implement some form of low-cost or tuition-free public higher education, an issue that Sanders in particular ramped up during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Lawmakers across the United States this budget season have enacted or are discussing similar initiatives to address the dilemma of how to ensure college affordability for middle-class Americans. Nationwide, student loan debt had ballooned to $1.31 trillion by the fourth quarter of 2016, the 18th straight year that loan balances rose, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of New York report last week.

The Excelsior Scholarship is designed as a “last-dollar” approach to paying tuition at the 64 campuses in SUNY and the 20 undergraduate colleges in the CUNY systems.

Students would use the money from the governor’s plan to pay for the remainder of tuition — or “last-dollar” — after exhausting all other forms of state and federal financial aid, such as money from the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, and the federal Pell Grant program.

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For the current academic year, SUNY’s resident tuition is $6,470 at its four-year colleges and $4,350 at its two-year community colleges. Those figures do not include additional fees, room and board, the cost of books and supplies or transportation.

The plan would cost $163 million annually once it is fully phased in, bringing the number of students attending a SUNY or CUNY tuition-free to 200,000 by 2019, according to officials in the governor’s office. Students from families with a household income under $40,000 already attend SUNY and CUNY schools tuition-free and are included in that projection number, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office confirmed.

“This is a step in the right direction, and you have to be incremental — especially on the state level,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal policy for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, a higher education group based in Washington, D.C., with a membership of 420 public colleges, universities and systems nationally.

Nassirian, an expert on college access and affordability, said the Excelsior plan isn’t the free-public-college concept that gained popularity among Sanders’ supporters when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The Vermont senator pushed a “first-dollar” plan that eliminated public college tuition and allowed for student financial aid to be applied to the other costs of attendance: room and board, books and supplies and transportation — which together cost an average of about $14,000 at one of the SUNY four-year programs, with students in higher-cost regions paying more.

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Nonetheless, Cuomo’s plan sends an important and symbolic message to families who are “terrified by the prospect of paying for higher education,” Nassirian said.

The governor believes “it’s the job of government” to help make higher education possible, spokeswoman Dani Lever said in an emailed statement.

“Governor Cuomo believes that a college education should be within the reach of anyone who wants it, regardless of race or religion; gender or orientation; documentation or ability; ZIP code or lineage,” Lever said.

If legislators approve the Excelsior Scholarship plan as it is being pitched, full-time SUNY or CUNY students taking at least 15 credits per semester from households with an adjusted gross income of under $100,000 could see the extra tuition money as early as the fall semester. By 2019, families with an adjusted gross income of up to $125,000 would be included.

Students receiving the Excelsior Scholarship must earn a passing grade. The supplemental tuition payment would follow the student to his or her institution of choice within SUNY or CUNY.

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Details of Excelsior plan remain unclear

Among the issues since Cuomo announced the program have been questions about how many students would be eligible for it and its underlying mechanics. The governor this month started a tour of campuses to tout the plan; he did not take questions from reporters at stops at SUNY Buffalo State and Binghamton University.

More than 600,000 students are enrolled in SUNY colleges and universities, including Stony Brook University, Farmingdale State College and SUNY Old Westbury on the Island. About one-third of SUNY students attend part-time, making them ineligible for the Excelsior Scholarship, although some college presidents and experts said the tuition assistance could be an incentive for them to enroll full-time, which has been shown to boost completion rates.

Eighty percent of New York’s households earn less than $125,000 and an estimated 940,000 families statewide have college-age children, 16 to 25 years old, who could be eligible for the program, according to the governor’s proposal.

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On Long Island, 55.6 percent of families making under $125,000 — or 112,890 families — have children within that age range who could be eligible. An official with the governor’s office said those figures were based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014-15 American Community Survey.

SUNY officials, based on data from the 2014-15 academic year, said 80,000 students enrolled at one of the system’s 64 campuses were projected to meet the eligibility requirements of the Excelsior plan — a family income level under $125,000 and enrolled in at least 15 credits for both the fall and spring terms.

SUNY officials say half those students already are attending a SUNY school without paying tuition because they receive TAP, Pell and other sources of financial aid.

Farmingdale State College junior Joshua Ockimey is among them. The computer science major from Uniondale works about 30 hours per week stacking boxes in a warehouse while taking 12 credits — about four classes — each semester.

Last semester, he took out a loan to cover costs like food, transportation, books and supplies.

“Hopefully, one day, education will be free. Everyone should have the opportunity to get a college education because you can’t get a good job without one,” said Ockimey, 20, of Uniondale, on a recent afternoon outside the financial aid office on campus.

“Maybe this will help my younger sister,” he added, referring to the Excelsior Scholarship plan.

Different approaches to tuition assistance

A pathway to tuition-free public college — hardly a new idea, with escalating costs and the increased imperative for postsecondary education — is gaining popularity.

How to implement such programs is the subject of debate, including in the state Assembly, where Republicans last week announced their own version as an alternative to Cuomo’s plan, with a main feature being an increase in the threshold for TAP eligibility to families that make $125,000 a year. The current ceiling is $80,000.

In 2015, Tennessee was the first state to offer residents a “last-dollar” supplement that provided free tuition to high school graduates going to technical and community colleges. Called the Tennessee Promise, the program in its initial year resulted in first-time freshman enrollment jumps of 25 percent at the technical colleges and 20 percent at the community colleges.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, in his most recent State of the State address, proposed expanding the program to include adult learners, those outside what is considered the traditional 18-24 college-age range.

Closer to home, two weeks after Cuomo’s proposal in early January, Rhode Island Gov. Gina M. Raimondo pitched a plan that would grant free tuition at community colleges and a tuition waiver for students to use in the last two years at the state’s four-year colleges. Students must have completed 60 credits of course work by the end of their sophomore year, declared a major and maintained a grade-point average of at least 2.0 to qualify for the waiver. The plan does not cover room and board.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced this month that beginning in the 2017-18 academic year, the city no longer will charge residents to attend community college, with stipends to the neediest students for books, supplies, transportation and health fees — $500 per year for full-time students and $200 per year for part-time students.

City officials said it is being paid for by taxes on properties selling for more than $5 million. Experts said that plan is most similar to Sanders’ idea of free college.

Other states, including Oregon, Michigan and South Dakota, have some form of tuition-free or deeply discounted last-dollar scholarships for their residents at state schools, mostly for those attending community colleges.

Cuomo’s plan is ‘strong’ but limited, critics say

Marc Cohen, president of the SUNY Student Assembly, said he believes Cuomo’s plan is strong, but that after years of decreased and flat state funding for the higher education system, “it simply isn’t enough.”

The costs of room and board and fees need to be frozen and TAP should be expanded, he said, because “the lowest-income students aren’t helped by the plan at all.”

The state now spends $1 billion on TAP, which carries a maximum benefit of $5,165 per year to the neediest students.

Cohen also urged a “rebalancing” of the funding to the campuses for infrastructure improvements.

“But we should give this [Excelsior] an opportunity to excel before inhibiting its ability to do so by showering it with criticism,” Cohen said. “So few items that the state pays for see a return on investment like higher education.”

Fred Kowal, president of the United University Professions, said there are many elements of the governor’s $7.4 billion higher education spending plan worth endorsing, although when it comes to Excelsior, “there are a lot of fine points that need to be worked out.”

The 42,000-member union of faculty and staff supports college affordability and would rather see an expansion of TAP and more funding to the individual campuses, he said.

The executive budget includes a 14.9 percent increase in funding to the Higher Education Services Corp., which administers TAP, bringing the state’s student financial aid agency’s budget to nearly $1.2 billion.

Advocates for private colleges are among the Excelsior Scholarship plan’s biggest critics.

Mary Beth Labate, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, representing more than 100 not-for-profit private colleges, said the plan limits student choice and could have grave consequences for smaller private, nonprofit institutions.

“Treat all students of equal means the same, and let the student chose which school is the best fit for him or her,” Labate said.

Even with private schools generously discounting on the tuition “sticker price,” Labate said, they would not be able to compete on cost. Some private colleges could see enrollment losses of 15 percent, which she called “detrimental.”

The state has invested more than $2.4 billion in private schools since 2011, officials in the governor’s office said.