- Associated Press - Monday, October 2, 2017

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the nation’s first tuition-free college program for students at two-year and four-year public schools will pay the bill for about 22,000 New York students in its first year.

The Excelsior Scholarship program pays the balance not covered by other state and federal financial aid and scholarships for New York residents who are financially eligible.

Tuition is about $6,500 at four-year public colleges and $4,800 at two-year community colleges in the State University of New York and City University of New York systems. The program does not cover living expenses, books and fees.

“A college degree now is what a high school diploma was 30 years ago - it is essential to succeed in today’s economy,” Cuomo, a Democrat, said in a statement Sunday afternoon.

In all, about 53 percent of the 400,000 New York residents attending a SUNY or CUNY campus full-time won’t have to pay tuition, the New York governor said.

That includes an additional 23,000 students who applied for Excelsior but will have their tuition fully covered by the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, federal Pell grant and other aid programs. More than 6,000 applications are pending, the governor’s office said.

The number of students who apply and are awarded the scholarship is expected to increase in the next two years, when the income threshold rises from the current $100,000 to $110,000 in 2018-19 and $125,000 in 2019-20.

The program is aimed at middle-class students who otherwise would be unlikely to have their tuition fully covered, but it has been criticized as not benefiting poorer students who already receive tuition help but struggle to pay other expenses. The scholarship’s average award is $4,000 per student, according to Cuomo’s office.

The state will spend about $87 million this year and $163 million annually once the program is fully implemented in 2019.

Some students are wary of requirements that students attend college full-time and must agree to live and work in the state for as many years as they receive the benefit. If not, the award reverts to a no-interest loan.

The residency restriction was a reason Ithaca College opted out of a related program for private colleges, said Gerard Turbide, vice president for enrollment management at the school.

“We didn’t want to enter into a program that was contingent on students living in a particular place,” Turbide said, “or having it become a loan and having students feel like the rug was pulled out from under them.”

But “we didn’t want people not considering Ithaca College with the promise of free tuition at state universities,” he said.

Instead, the upstate New York college will offer its own New York State Tuition Award, which will provide up to $6,000 per year to students from families earning $125,000 or less. The award, which begins next fall, will be in addition to TAP or Pell funding, said Turbide, who said tuition is $42,884.

The Excelsior Scholarship’s requirement that all other awards be deducted from the total the scholarship provides struck Amy and Andrew Brooks as unfair. Their son, Aaron, graduated from Queens’ Forest Hills High School with a 95 average that earned him a nearly $5,000 academic scholarship to attend the University at Albany, his mother said. But the scholarship all but negated any benefit from Excelsior, even though the family qualified financially, she said.

“Does it promote kids working hard to achieve if they’re not going to get what they deserve?” Amy Brooks said.

The governor’s office responded that the program is intended to get as many students attending college tuition-free as possible.

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