What New York colleges need to know about the free tuition plan

Similar plans in other states boosted enrollment, completion rates

This story has been updated to reflect the latest news about the bill.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) proposed a plan in January that would eliminate tuition for many students attending public colleges in his state. Now, Cuomo and state legislators say they've reached a deal to enact the plan. The EAB Daily Briefing team rounds up the key details below.

Who would qualify

  • Tuition would be free for students whose families earn an annual income of $125,000 or less.
  • Only students attending institutions within the City University of New York or the State University of New York systems would qualify.
  • Students may attend either two-year or four-year institutions.
  • Up to 940,000 households in the state would qualify, based on an estimate from the governor's office.
  • Students would be required to work or live in the state after graduation for the same number of years they received tuition benefits.

How the plan would be implemented

  • The state would phase in the program over three years, starting in fall 2017 with a family income cap of $100,000.
  • The proposal would cost the state an additional $163 million annually, according to some estimates. Currently, the state spends nearly $1 billion annually on its Tuition Assistance Program.

What colleges should know

  • Students eligible for a free tuition program in Kalamazoo, Michigan are about 33% more likely to graduate from college, as well as 14% more likely to enroll in college and 34% more likely to attend a four-year institution, according to a study from the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
  • A similar program in Tennessee attracted applications from 90% of the state's high school seniors in its first year.
  • Some experts say the plan will increase enrollment, but others argue Cuomo's proposal doesn't offer anything new to the lowest-income students. For example, between state and federal aid, students from families who earn less than $30,000 already receive free tuition at the State University of New York in Albany, according to Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.
  • More than 150 programs across the country offer some form of tuition-free community college.

How Georgia State University graduates record numbers of minority students

What people are saying

  • There are rumors that Cuomo has plans to run for president in the future, and some say the proposal could be part of his effort to prepare for that goal.
  • Many commentators pointed out that New York's public colleges already have some of the lowest tuition rates in the nation.
  • Some New York education leaders expressed support for the proposal, but others wondered if the funds might be better spent on improving graduation rates in the state.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), who proposed a plan for nationwide free tuition during his recent presidential campaign, predicts that other states might follow New York's example with free tuition plans of their own.

(West/Korn, Wall Street Journal, 1/3; McKinley, New York Times, 1/3; Chingos, Washington Post, 1/4; Douglas-Gabriel, Washington Post, 1/3; Seltzer, Inside Higher Ed, 1/4).

How free tuition programs are playing out in three states


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