One down, 49 to go.

On Saturday, New York’s Senate passed a bill to make two- and four-year public colleges tuition-free for students in low- and middle-income families. This marks the first time public four-year universities in the US have gone tuition-free at a state level.

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Beginning in fall 2017, the Excelsior Scholarship will provide free tuition for students attending a State University of New York (SUNY) or City University of New York (CUNY) school, provided they come from households making less than $100,000 per year.

That income cap will increase to $110,000 for 2018 and $125,000 for 2019. The state estimates the program will help more than 940,000 families.

“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. “With this program, every child will have the opportunity that education provides.”  

The approved budget increases New York state’s Operating Funds by 2% ($98.1 billion), which includes a $163 million investment to fund the Excelsior Scholarship program and $8 million to increase access to e-books across the state.

The budget, "extends [the] tax rate on millionaires, preserving as much as $4.5 billion in annual revenue.”

Read More: California Lawmaker Wants to Make Public Universities Free by Taxing Millionaires

While the legislation is historic, many students in New York already benefit from free college tuition. Nearly half of full-time SUNY students and more than 60% of full-time CUNY students already attend college tuition-free thanks to Pell Grants or New York Tuition Assistance grants, CNN Money reported.

These students are ineligible for the Excelsior Scholarship.

There are a few caveats. Students must earn 30 credits per year, which potentially excludes part-time students (15 credits per semester is full-time, though credits can be taken during the summer), and recipients must live and work in New York for the same number of years they receive the scholarship. Failure to do so will convert the funding into a student loan.

The scholarship only covers tuition. Other costs of attending college, like room and board, are still the student’s responsibility.

Undocumented students are ineligible to receive the scholarship.

Cuomo proposed the plan last January, which was supported by US Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign brought the issues of universal college education and rising student debt to the national stage.

Americans owe more than $1.3 trillion dollars in student loan debt, according to Student Loan Hero. The average class of 2016 graduate owes more than $37,000.

While there are numerous debt-relief programs available to borrowers, New York’s plan goes straight to the source – the cost of education – and builds on Sanders’ platform by making college education more accessible and more affordable for low- and middle-income families.

Read More: Countries Where a College Degree Doesn’t Cost a Dime

Though Sanders’ national appeal fell short, his legacy continues, at least in the New York’s education system. Cuomo wants the Empire State to serve as an example from which other states can pass similar education bills:   

“By making college at our world-class public universities tuition-free, we have established a national model for access to higher education, and achieved another New York first,” Cuomo said.

Tennessee and Oregon currently offer free tuition at two-year community colleges. In February, San Francisco became the first city to offer free tuition for its public colleges.

Clearly, education is being increasingly recognized as a public good and a universal right, and lawmakers are responding accordingly.

New York’s newest scholarship is named for its state motto, excelsior. Ever upwards, indeed.


Defeat Poverty

New York Will Be the First State to Offer Tuition-Free Public Universities

By James O'Hare