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New York takes a stab at debt-free college, covering tuition for families earning less than $125,000

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is proposing free tuition at state colleges and universities. (Timothy A. Clary/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is forging ahead with one of the Democratic Party’s most popular ideas by proposing to cover tuition for low- and middle-income students at state colleges and universities.

Any New Yorker accepted to one of the state’s community colleges or four-year universities will be eligible for free tuition provided their family earns less than $125,000 a year. The new initiative will be phased in over three years, beginning for New Yorkers making up to $100,000 annually in the fall of 2017, increasing to $110,000 in 2018, and reaching $125,000 in 2019. It would be a last-dollar program, meaning the state would cover any tuition left over after factoring in federal Pell Grants and New York’s Tuition Assistance Program.

Cuomo aims to roll out the initiative, dubbed the Excelsior Scholarship, beginning this fall, pending legislative approval. His administration estimates that the scholarship will cost at least $163 million in the first year, a price tag that could rise alongside participation. Nearly 1 million families would qualify for the program.

“College is a mandatory step if you really want to be a success,” Cuomo said Tuesday at LaGuardia Community College in Queens. “And the way this society said we’re going to pay for high school because you need high school, this society should say we’re going to pay for college because you need college to be successful. And New York state is going to do something about it.”

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If the proposal clears the state legislature, New York will become the largest state to offer tuition-free public higher education to residents. Yet states across the country and across the political spectrum are paying greater attention to college costs as more local employers demand some form of postsecondary education. According to the Upjohn Institute, there are at least 85 initiatives at the municipal and state level aiming to cover the cost of tuition at community colleges. Tennessee, Oregon and Minnesota have free community-college programs, with Tennessee’s model lauded as a viable path for reducing higher-education costs.

Although momentum for debt-free college has been building for years, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Hillary Clinton elevated the issue of college affordability with campaign proposals to make public higher education free for the vast majority of American families. Those prospects seemed to fade with the election of Donald Trump, but proponents are rallying behind states to continue the fight.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has made college affordability a central theme of his campaign. (Video: Thomas LeGro/The Washington Post, Photo: Danny Moloshok/The Washington Post)

Sanders, who was on hand for Cuomo’s announcement Tuesday, said New York could galvanize other states to cover tuition for residents if the scholarship proposal is approved. Cuomo’s plan has a shorter phase-in than the five-year timeline proposed by Sanders and Clinton.

“This is an idea that is not only going to reverberate throughout the state of New York, but throughout the country,” Sanders said. “What today’s message is about is if you are in the fourth grade and you start studying hard, you will be able to get the college education you need to make it to the middle class, regardless of your family income. That’s revolutionary.”

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It’s unclear whether lawmakers in Albany will back Cuomo’s proposal, especially because the full costs of the ambitious scholarship are unknown. New York State Senate Speaker John J. Flanagan (R) and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

As it stands, in-state tuition at community colleges in New York pencils in at $4,350, while tuition at State University of New York schools is $6,470 for residents. The City University of New York schools cost about the same as their state counterparts. Nearly two-thirds of New York students graduate with an average $29,320 in debt from four-year public and private universities, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

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