When New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed legislation on April 12 launching the state’s Excelsior Scholarship program, which provides free college tuition at state schools for New York students whose families make $125,000 a year or less, he hailed it as a “first-in-the-nation” initiative designed to “make college accessible, strengthen the middle class and build a brighter future for all New Yorkers.” The program, which takes its name from the state’s one-word motto meaning “ever upward,” will kick off in fall 2017 and be phased in over three years.

Free College Tuition Draws Praise...

The program applies to all State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) colleges, both two-year or four-year ones. There are currently 64 schools in the SUNY system, including 30 community colleges. CUNY operates 11 four-year schools and seven community colleges. Tuition at a SUNY four-year college is currently $6,470 a year for full-time, in-state students; at CUNY it’s $6,330.

Scholarship recipients will be required to maintain a minimum grade point average to stay in the program. They will also have to live and work in New York state after they graduate for the same number of years that the scholarship covered their education.

Among those praising the new initiative was former presidential candidate and onetime senator from New York Hillary Clinton, who had proposed a similar program during her 2016 presidential campaign. Saying she hoped that New York would be the “first of many states” to pass such a law, she even suggested that in the meantime young people from other states consider moving to the Empire State to take advantage of it. (For more, see Looking for a Tuition-Free College? Move Abroad.)

...Also Criticism

But the program is not without its critics, some of whom questioned the governor’s motives, particularly his ambitions toward higher office. Others pointed out that for many families the cost of tuition is only one financial barrier to college. Room, board and books can also add up to a sizeable sum.

At SUNY, for example, the $6,470 annual tuition represents only about 26% of the college’s estimated cost of attendance. Room and board adds another $12,590 a year, and student fees an additional $1,640. The university also estimates “indirect costs” (books and supplies, personal expenses and transportation) at $3,980. So, all told, a year at SUNY would cost $24,680.

Students who live at home and commute to campus would pay less in total, but even their cost of attendance comes to $16,790, according to SUNY’s estimate. That’s still more than twice the price of tuition alone. New York Times columnist David Brooks delivered what amounted to an eight-count indictment of the initiative in his April 14 column, calling it “the worst public policy idea of the year.”

Among Brooks’ complaints: The scholarship program wouldn’t cover students who attend college less than full time or who don’t graduate in four years, which today represents the majority of students. He also argued that it would put New York’s many private colleges at a serious disadvantage by drawing away middle-class students who might otherwise attend them. Some schools, he suggested, would probably be forced to close.

Brooks further faulted the scholarship’s provision requiring students to remain in New York for a period of time after graduating. “This means they won’t be able to seize out-of-state opportunities during the crucial years when their career track is being formed,” he wrote. “They’ll be trapped in a state with one really expensive city, and other regions where jobs are scarce.”

The Bottom Line

It is, of course, indisputable that making college tuition free will make it possible for some students to attend who otherwise wouldn’t be able to do so, which is no doubt why people such as Hillary Clinton and Governor Cuomo are in favor of it. What the Excelsior Scholarship program doesn’t do is zero out the total cost of attending college. It remains to be seen whether the program’s conditions for enrollment will have unintended negative consequences that outweigh the benefits of making higher education more accessible to all New Yorkers.

Students and parents who are interested in the Excelsior Scholarship program can get more information and sign up for email alerts on the state’s website. (For more, see Should Public College Tuition Be Free?)

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