Four steps to getting free SUNY tuition

ALBANY -- The state's plans to offer free SUNY tuition to income-eligible students has drawn national headlines, making New York the first in the nation with such a broad program.

Some states, like Tennessee and Oregon, offer limited free tuition programs, mainly for community college or two-year technical schools, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators
New York's program will start this fall and cover the full $6,470 tuition for those households earning less than $100,000 a year. The income threshold will rise to $110,000 next year and $125,000 in 2019.

"Think about all the kids who can put their head on the pillow tonight and say, 'It doesn’t matter if mom and dad can’t afford it. It doesn’t matter if dad is gone or mom is gone. I can go to college. I can be a doctor. I can be a lawyer. I can be whatever I want to be," Cuomo said in a speech Monday in Harlem.

There is criticism from some groups over the plan, including private colleges who fear it will stack the deck against them.

And there are some stipulations to getting the free tuition.

What if I make too much money?

That's an ongoing issue. If you make more than $100,000 this year in adjusted gross income, you wouldn't be eligible. Yet the threshold raises to $125,000 by 2019.

It doesn't matter if you have two kids in college or one: That's the eligibility limit per household.

The state is administering the program largely through an expansion of its existing tuition assistance programs, which had a limit of $500 in aid to households with income of no more than $80,000.

So this is a big jump in eligibility. And it will apply to existing students, too.

Undergraduate tuition for New York residents at SUNY is currently $6,470; community college tuition is $4,366 on average because each community college sets its own tuition.

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino criticized the income thresholds, contending he heard from at least two families who said they might get divorced on paper -- just so they can get the free tuition.
"So the husband or the wife, whoever makes less, will have the kids on their income and qualify for free tuition," Astorino, a Republican who ran against Cuomo in 2014 and may do so again in 2018, said Monday on WGDJ-AM (1300) in Albany.

If you're not eligible and want to go to SUNY, you may actually end up paying more. The measure allows the SUNY Board of Trustees to raise tuition up to $200 a year in each of the next four years.

What are the school requirements?

You have to be a full-time student and average 30 credits per year, but that can include summer and winter-break courses.

There's also a hardship provision for students who have to leave college or take fewer courses because of a family emergency.

There's no specific grade-point average that needs to be maintained, but it has to be "necessary for the successful completion of their coursework," according to SUNY.

Residency requirements are the same as for other financial aid programs, which usually requires one year of living in the state before attending SUNY.

Cuomo's office estimates that nearly 80 percent or more than 940,000 families with college-aged children across New York would qualify for the free tuition.

The state is budgeting $163 million for the program.

Tuition is just one piece of college's costs. SUNY said tuition, room and board and fees come to $20,700 a year, and that doesn't include the price of books and other living expenses.

Still, SUNY tuition is already moderately priced by national standards. The College Board ranked New York at 40th in-state tuition and fees last year, but SUNY tuition did rise 30 percent, or $1,500, between 2011 and 2015.

State officials said students will be able to apply for the free tuition as they would with any other financial-aid program, and the applications will soon be available

What about after graduation?

This appears to be the most controversial part of the program.

It requires students to live and work in New York for the same number of years after they graduated as they received the scholarship.

So if a student got the free tuition for four years, he or she would have to stay in the state for four years.
If the student left, the state would convert the scholarship to a loan, state officials said.

Cuomo said the reason is simple: New York wants to keep its young people here. The state has faced a loss of population, particularly upstate.

"The concept of investing in you and your education is that you’re going to stay here and be an asset to the state," Cuomo said during a conference call Monday with newspaper editorial boards.
"If you don’t want to stay here, then go to California now. Let them pay for your college education."

What about private schools?

This was a concern raised by state lawmakers when the measure was negotiated as part of the state budget, which was given final approval Sunday night.

So there's a private-school component.

"Enhanced Tuition Awards" of up to $6,000 are available for students from New York who enroll in a private college.

The state will pay up to $3,000 to help offset tuition costs for private-school students who meet the same income and residency requirements.

The private college is expected to pay the other $3,000, and they would have freeze that student's tuition for the duration of the scholarship.

The same after-college requirements also apply: The student would have to live and work in New York after graduation.

The state budget includes $19 million for the program, and private colleges can opt out if they don't want to participate.

New York has more than 100 private colleges with about 300,000 students. The private colleges are not happy about the whole thing, calling it unsound public policy.

"Introducing a conditional and unguaranteed 'free' tuition plan, and a potentially unworkable and modest plan for students who attend a not-for-profit college or university will confuse and potentially mislead families at the moment when students are making the decision on what college to attend," said Mary Beth Labate, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities.

Labate is Cuomo's former budget director.

© 2017 WGRZ-TV


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