College Will Be Free In New York Under New Plan

If your family earns less than $125,000 a year, tuition at New York colleges will be free under the proposed Excelsior Scholarship system.

President Obama speaks at the University at Buffalo in New York. Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

New York’s governor plans to make college free for low- and middle-income families, under a groundbreaking plan announced Tuesday that could set a precedent for other liberal states.

Standing alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders, who made free college tuition a major promise of his presidential campaign — and one eventually adopted by Hillary Clinton — Gov. Andrew Cuomo said students whose families make less than $125,000 a year will be able to attend two- and four-year colleges in New York for free.

The plan would center around the Excelsior Scholarship, a new program that would essentially fill the gap between current state subsidies and the cost of tuition at New York public colleges.

The plan echoes what was proposed by Sanders and Clinton during the Democratic primary campaign, and its $125,000 income limit is the same as the one suggested by Clinton. Its backers hope it will become a model for others around the country.

“If New York state does it this year, mark my words, state after state will follow,” Sanders said Tuesday at LaGuardia Community College in New York City, a school that has long been heralded as one of the country’s best community colleges.

A handful of other states, like Tennessee, have made it possible for students to attend two-year community colleges for free, with many other legislatures weighing similar proposals. But New York would be the first to make all of its public colleges — including four-year universities — free.

Cuomo’s office said in a press release that the Excelsior Scholarship program would cost around $163 million, and could affect almost 1 million families with eligible college-aged children. Average household income in New York state is just under $60,000, according to the US Census Bureau.

The Excelsior Scholarship could save New York students significant chunks of money. At the 30,000-student University at Buffalo — the largest campus in the State University of New York system — more than half of students take on debt, borrowing $26,000 on average, according to The Institute for College Access and Success. But a large part of that debt is taken on to cover room and board and other living expenses, which won’t be covered under Cuomo’s plan.


The largest campuses in the SUNY system is the University at Buffalo, which has 30,000 students. A previous version of this article misstated its name and enrollment size.

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Molly Hensley-Clancy is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. She covers the intersection of business and education.
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