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Cuomo proposes free college tuition assistance for eligible students

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, joined by Sen. Bernie

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, joined by Sen. Bernie Sanders, pitched a proposal for additional state tuition assistance during an event at LaGuardia Community College in Queens on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. The plan would help pay the cost of SUNY or CUNY tuition for low- and middle-income New Yorkers. Credit: Charles Eckert

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed a path to a tuition-free state college education Tuesday for eligible students, announcing supplemental aid to ease the burden for hundreds of thousands of low- and middle-income families.

The “Excelsior Scholarship” program would help cover the tuition costs at State University of New York and City University of New York schools, including at two-year community colleges, for students whose families earn up to $100,000 annually, beginning this fall. The income threshold would rise to $110,000 by 2018 and $125,000 by 2019. Individuals also would qualify.

The aid would offset tuition costs not already covered by the state’s Tuition Assistance Program and federal Pell grants, officials said. The income cap for TAP grants is $80,000. Because the Excelsior cap is $100,000, officials say some students may qualify for Excelsior even if they don’t receive TAP.

Room and board, student fees and other costs would not be covered.

The initiative, the first Cuomo has rolled out for his 2017 agenda, requires approval by the State Legislature.

Officials projected the plan would cost about $163 million each year once it’s fully phased in, though the figure could rise with enrollment. In 2015-16, 350,000 students received TAP grants, according to state reports. The governor’s office estimates an additional 200,000 students would benefit by the end of the Excelsior Scholarship phase-in.

Current SUNY tuition is $6,470 for New York students at four-year institutions; tuition has been raised for five straight years under a plan approved by the governor and legislators. Suffolk County Community College’s 2016-17 annual tuition for a full-time student is $4,770; Nassau Commmunity College’s annual tuition is $4,868.

“This society should say, ‘We’re going to pay for college because you need college to be successful,’ ” the Democratic governor said, pitching the plan before a cheering audience of high school students, labor leaders and elected officials at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Queens.

Cuomo was joined at the announcement by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a former Democratic presidential candidate who made free public college education a central campaign pledge. “Today what Governor Cuomo is proposing is a revolutionary idea for higher education,” Sanders said. “And it’s an idea that is going to reverberate not only throughout the state of New York but throughout this country.”

Not everyone applauded.

“This would be one of the most expensive entitlements in state history, and it leaves many questions about how it would actually function — or be paid for — unanswered,” said Tim Hoefer, executive director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a nonpartisan and fiscally conservative think tank.

Although Cuomo hasn’t said how he would fund the program, he is expected to again extend a temporary income-tax surcharge on taxpayers making more than $1 million a year.

At Cuomo’s announcement rally, several students who attend a nearby high school said the prospect of free tuition would alleviate stress on their families. Many come from immigrant families.

“It’s going to save us a lot of money,” said Aruna Parkash, 17, of Jackson Heights, who hopes to attend Queens College to study education. She predicted the money she saved on undergraduate school could make it more likely for her to attend graduate school.

Cuomo’s proposal would have to be paid for in the state budget, which will require approval by the legislature by April 1. On Tuesday, there was early support for the proposal that has existed in various forms in Albany for a couple of years.

“For so many New Yorkers, the snowballing cost of a higher education has meant drowning in student debt for over a decade; for countless more, it serves as an outright roadblock,” said Assemb. James Skoufis (D-Hudson Valley). He noted he introduced a tuition-free bill in 2014 and it was supported by 80 of 150 Assembly members.

“While we will have to review the specifics when the governor releases his executive budget, this proposal appears to move us in a positive direction,” said Scott Reif, spokesman for the Senate’s Republican majority. He noted that Senate Higher Education Committee chairman Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) has already pushed for an expansion of the state Tuition Assistance Program to provide more money to middle-class families.

With Yancey Roy and Candice Ferrette

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