Recent headlines shouted the news that New York soon would offer free college tuition. At first glance, it seemed as though all those post-millennials who were "feeling the Bern" had finally been heard. But a closer look at the details shows that it may be a little early to celebrate. The New York plan is certainly a step toward lowering college costs for some students, but there are a number of catches that might make it less appealing to others.
New York's initiative, called the Excelsior Scholarship Program, signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week, will offer free in-state college tuition at public universities to full-time students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. Finally, a break for those in financial need, right? Well, yes and no.
The Excelsior program will work out best for the children of parents making somewhere between $60,000 and $125,000. These students don't generally qualify for other grants or need-based loans, so Excelsior will help them get a college degree without racking up loads of student loan debt. That's a huge win for the middle class. It will not, however, cover any costs outside of tuition. So those families will still be on the hook for housing, food, books, lab fees and any other expenses. According to this ABC news piece, four years at a state university in New York can rack up an $83,000 tab; tuition makes up only $26,000 of that amount.
And students whose families make less than $60,000 won't see any benefit from Excelsior. These students already qualify for federal and state grants that can be used to cover the costs of tuition. Excelsior won't trump those funds. In addition, these students are more likely to attend college part-time while working to cover the costs of non-tuition expenses. Even if they qualified, not attending college full-time would make them ineligible for Excelsior.
Perhaps the biggest catch to New York's free tuition plan is that students who utilize it must agree to continue to live and work in the state for the same number of years they received Excelsior funding. If they move out of state after graduation, the scholarship would be considered a loan that must be paid back.
When I was a freshman in college, I had no idea where I would land a job after college. And when the first job popped up, three states away, I grabbed it. It's hard enough for recent college graduates to find any job; limiting their possibilities with geographical constraints will only make that harder.
Still, the Excelsior Scholarship is certainly a step in the right direction. It will be interesting to see if it helps, if it leads to increased enrollment and whether the idea catches on in other states. As a parent whose children are just a few years from attending college, I'll be watching.