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New York Becomes First State to Offer Free College Tuition

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is joined by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Chairperson of the Board of Trustees of The City University of New York William C. Thompson at an event promoting free tuition at LaGuardia Community College in New York on Jan. 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

New York Republican State Assemblyman Karl Brabenec didn’t like the idea of state-paid college tuition for anyone, middle-class or otherwise, from the very beginning.

Brabenec told the Hudson Valley News Network that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship Program was “misguided, irresponsible and the kind of nanny-state socialism that perpetuates New York’s image as one of the most expensive states in the nation in which to live and operate a business.”

As PJM reported in January, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reminded Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during her confirmation hearing that the phrase “free tuition” is misleading because someone is going to have to pay.

“Senator, I think that’s a really interesting idea,” DeVos said when she was asked by Sanders about the plan he offered during his presidential campaign. “And it’s really great to consider and think about, but I think we also have to consider the fact that there’s nothing in life that’s truly free; somebody’s going to pay for it.”

It turns out she was right. It is the state of New York – or, rather, state taxpayers – who are going to have to foot the $163 million annual bill for the scholarship program. The money will come out of the state’s general fund.

“(That) is a financial burden we cannot place on future generations,” Brabenec said.

However, that is right where the burden will land. Legislators approved the free-tuition proposal over the weekend and Cuomo signed his Excelsior Scholarship Program on Monday. New York will become the first state to offer free tuition to four-year colleges and universities.

Despite what Republicans like Brabenec and DeVos might think, Cuomo said this is a good deal because those future generations Brabenec is so concerned about won’t have to lie awake wondering if their parents can afford college.

“Today, college is what high school was – it should always be an option even if you can’t afford it,” Cuomo said in a statement Saturday. “There is no child who will go to sleep tonight and say, I have great dreams, but I don’t believe I’ll be able to get a college education because parents can’t afford it. With this program, every child will have the opportunity that education provides.”

Under the Excelsior Scholarship, nearly 80 percent, or 940,000 middle-class families and individuals making up to $125,000 per year, would qualify to attend college tuition-free at all CUNY and SUNY two- and four-year colleges in New York State.

The new program 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.

Kristen Desimones told WHAM-TV she’s worried that her kids won’t get any of the tuition money because the family’s income is too high.

“The salary bracket, if it could be a little bit wider because I’ll have three kids in school or at least two at the same time,” she said. “But if I don’t qualify, I’d still have to bear the burden of tuition for both kids.”

State officials aren’t just going to be hanging out in coffee shops handing out money. There are some rules to this.

The Excelsior Scholarship is a “last-dollar” program. That means students have to use their Pell Grants, other tuition assistance and scholarship money first, and only go to Excelsior to pay the remainder.

Students also have to maintain a grade point average good enough to graduate, finish on time — which means the state isn’t going to pay for professional students who never graduate — and they have to live and work in the state of New York for as long as it took them to finish college.

Kevin Cane, a Rochester Institute of Technology student, told WHAM-TV he isn’t happy with the idea that he would have to settle in the state of New York in exchange for four years of free tuition.

“It’s not great,” Cane said. “It’s not ideal; I’d like to see this happen on a national scale so there’s a little more freedom of movement.”

That could happen. Sanders, despite what Betsy DeVos told him, introduced a free college tuition bill last week.

“Higher education in America should be a right for all, not a privilege for the few,” Sanders said. “If we are to succeed in a highly competitive global economy and have the best-educated workforce in the world, public colleges and universities must become tuition-free for working families and we must substantially reduce student debt.”

Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others who are backing his free college tuition idea called their proposal “College For All” when they unveiled it April 3.

It actually wouldn’t be “for all.” Sanders said the program was intended to make sure students from middle-income families, making less than $125,000 a year, could go to college.

That is good enough for Breana Ross, president of the United States Student Association, who told Inside Higher Ed, “We believe that education is a right and not a commodity.”