ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday proposed a plan to offer free tuition at state colleges and universities for income eligible New Yorkers.
The free tuition plan, which will cost about $163 million a year, would be phased in over three years, according to Cuomo's office. By the final year, New York students would be eligible if their families earn $125,000 or less annually.
The program -- which would need legislative approval -- would cover both two and four-year colleges, including community colleges. Room and board would not be free.
Tuition is $6,470 at the four-year colleges.
“If you come from any family making $125,000 or less, the state will provide free tuition," Cuomo said Tuesday at LaGuardia College. "It is going to be the first program like it in the United States of America. It’s once again New York leading the way.”
Cuomo announced his proposal -- which he called the Excelsior College program -- alongside Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who pushed for free tuition during his presidential bid last year.
Sanders praised the plan as "revolutionary," saying students shouldn't be "punished" with tens of thousands of dollars in debt for seeking higher education.
"The day will come where we understand that public education in America is not simply kindergarten through high school, but that public education in 2017 means making public colleges and public universities tuition-free," Sanders said.
The effort is expected to supplement the variety of tuition-assistance programs that the state already offers to low-and middle-income New Yorkers to attend one of the state's 64-public campuses.
The initiative would need approval of the state Legislature as part of the budget for the fiscal year that starts April 1. There was no immediate comment from legislative leaders on the plan.
Cuomo has until Jan. 17 to introduce his budget plan.
SUNY tuition has been a source of debate in New York in recent years.
SUNY tuition, room and board increased from an average of $13,275 in the 2005-06 school year to $20,549 in 2014-15 school year, a 55 percent increase, a state report in September found
The SUNY Board of Trustees increased tuition $300 a year between 2011 and 2015, but lawmakers rejected another increase last year.
In Western New York, four Republican state legislators issued statements to 2 On Your Side regarding the governor's proposal for free college tuition.
State Senator Cathy Young of Olean said the proposal will deserve "intense review" during the budget process, but noted she looked forward to seeing Gov. Cuomo's full proposal in the Executive Budget. Senator Patrick Gallivan of Elma echoed that statement, calling the proposal a potential benefit but "before we move forward, we must make sure the governor's proposal is affordable."
Senator Rob Ortt of North Tonawanda said he's "fully supportive" of any proposal to make college affordable, but he also expressed concerns over funding.
"I'm all for free college tuition, just like I'm all for free puppies and apple pie," Ortt said in a statement. "I have serious concerns when sweeping statements such as 'free college for all' are made without fully considering what that will mean for our state, our taxpayers, and our institutions of higher learning."
Assemblyman Ray Walter of Amherst also said he supports college tuition relief but needs to see more details from Gov. Cuomo, including whether students would need a minimum GPA to qualify, whether recent graduates would see debt relief and whether tuition would increase for other students who don't qualify under the program.
As the budget process plays out over the next few months, campus administrators will be watching closely.
Daniel Tramuta, the Associate Vice President for Enrollment Services at Fredonia, praised Gov. Cuomo's proposal and urged the state legislature to approve the funding.
He called the plan a game-changer for middle class families.
"This piece of legislation addresses tuition for them, and allows colleges to leverage other financial aid scholarships against room, food, books, personal and travel costs," Tramuta said.
On top of the $6,470 charge for tuition, Fredonia charges about $13,000 a year for room and meal plan costs, placing the school on the lower end of SUNY campuses.
About 81 percent of current Fredonia students receiving federal financial aid would qualify for free tuition under the governor's plan.
If their tuition costs were covered through this state scholarship program, as Gov. Cuomo proposed, Tramuta is hopeful the students would then be able to receive even more aid for the additional room and board costs. That, in turn, could help them avoid borrowing money and falling into debt.
"We are now in a conversation-- not only is it affordable, but we're going to be able to address your student loan debt," Tramuta said, "so you're not graduating with mortgages."