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Cuomo Unveils Plan for Free Tuition

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Free tuition may become a reality for University at Albany students if Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed Excelsior Scholarship is passed.

The plan was first announced on Jan. 3 during Cuomo’s first state of the state address at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, and the campaign began Tuesday at Buffalo State College. If the plan is approved, by the fall of 2019, all college-aged children whose households make under $125,000 will be eligible for free tuition at any of the state’s SUNY or CUNY’s two- or four-year programs.

“In New York, education was always the great equalizer, but today, far too many young people have been deprived of the advanced degree they need to get ahead, compete in the global economy, and secure the jobs of tomorrow,” Cuomo said in a statement. “The Empire State is sending a message loud and clear that under the Excelsior Scholarship program, students’ dreams of higher education will be realized no matter how much money is in their pocket or the neighborhood they come from.”

The program, which would alleviate the burden that many middle class families face while paying for tuition, would make New York the first in the nation to enact such a plan, according to Cuomo.

At UAlbany, where an estimated 80 percent of undergraduate students receive financial aid, the proposed changes are welcomed by the majority of faculty and students.

Following Cuomo’s early January announcement of the proposal, UAlbany’s Interim President, James Stellar, issued a statement of support.

“The governor’s plan to provide free tuition to thousands of SUNY and CUNY students is a powerful endorsement of higher education in New York State,” he said.

Despite Stellar’s support, some have their concerns.

The plan would not help those in need and instead would serve as a “middle and upper income welfare program,” argued Conner Dunleavy, Senator at Large for the Student Association.

“Since those in the lowest income brackets already receive nearly all tuition covered by TAP,” Dunleavy said, referring to the state’s Tuition Assistance Program. “ The answer is not to throw money at middle and upper income families – but to raise the TAP eligibility.”

Although the Dunleavy fears that the program will provide assistance to those who do not necessarily need it, it can potentially prevent students from being weighed down by the student loans and interest rates they would face upon graduation.

“I think it’s a good solution to a problem [rising student debt] that we don’t need to be dealing with,” Zack Cuzo said.

Paying off already accumulated loans is a concern for Cuzo, who will be graduating from the school’s journalism program at the end of the fall 2017 semester.

The first phase of the Excelsior Scholarship would begin next fall and would be available to students whose households make $100,000 or less a year. In the fall of 2018, the program will expand to include those whose families make $110,000 annually, before reaching $125,000 at the beginning of the fall 2019 semester.

UAlbany junior, Rachel Eager, also supports the proposed changes, but remains skeptical.

“I think free college is extremely important for giving all students opportunities,” the biochemistry and molecular biology major said. “I am just a little worried about its execution and how the government will be paying for it.”

This concern is understandable.

Cuomo’s office predicts the plan will cost $163 million per year once it is fully phased in, but the cost will combine the state’s preexisting $1 billion Tuition Assistance Program, TAP, with federal grant funding, and then fills whatever is left over.

Another concern that has been raised is what implications this may have for families whose children are enrolled in the state’s private schools. Private universities may be forced to lower their tuition in hopes of retaining students who may be incentivized to attend a public university in the state once tuition is covered.

But the governor’s office does not foresee this as being a problem, and neither do some students.

“Although I am not personally affected by this, I commend the governor’s efforts to make higher education affordable to more families,” Andrew Parnes, a senior at nearby Union College, said.

Since 2011 the state has provided more than $2.4 billion to private schools and roughly 90,000 students receive state grants to help pay for their tuition, according to Cuomo’s office.

It is expected that this plan will provide more students with the opportunity and encouragement to pursue higher education, as 61 percent of four-year students and 91 percent of two-year community college students in New York do not complete their degrees on time, according to Cuomo’s office.

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