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Free college tuition could become a reality — at least in these states

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo this month proposed a plan to bring free college tuition to middle class students attending public colleges in the state. On Tuesday, state legislators started to debate the cost and likelihood of such an undertaking.

Cuomo is proposing that students from families making less than a certain income be eligible to receive free tuition at two- and four-year public colleges in New York. If approved, the free tuition would be available to students from families earning less than $100,000 a year. In the second year that number would rise to $110,000, and it would top out at $125,000 in 2019. The income cap was selected because 80% of households in New York state make $125,000 or less, and nearly 940,000 of those households have college-age children who would be eligible for the program.

With Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by his side, Cuomo made the proposal on Jan. 3, detailing the importance of higher education if students are expected to compete in today’s economy. “It’s incredibly hard and getting harder to get a college education today. It’s incredibly expensive and debt is so high it’s like starting a race with an anchor tied to your leg,” Cuomo said.

For the 2016-17 school year, tuition at New York’s state-operated colleges (which includes 64 SUNY campuses) will cost $6,470 at a four-year school and $4,350 at community colleges. The proposal would not include the cost of room and board, which can cost up to $12,590 if you live on campus. Overall, Cuomo is asking the state for $163 million per year to pay for the free-tuition program.

While the idea of free college sounds appealing, Cuomo is facing an uphill battle in rallying support from local legislators. One critic, New York State Assembly Republican Leader Brian Kolb, says Cuomo isn’t actually providing free tuition, just a bigger burden for taxpayers. “At the end of the day someone has to pay the bill, and once again his political ambitions will be subsidized by the highest-taxed people in America,” he told CNN.


Cuomo is just the latest politician to join the “free college movement,” which received a lot of attention during the presidential campaign thanks to Democratic candidates Sanders and Hillary Clinton. President Barack Obama also pushed a proposal to make community colleges free in 2015. With the election of President Donald Trump, however, it doesn’t look like a national free tuition program is in the cards, but on the local level, several states are making strides in providing free or discounted educational options for their students.

Last year Kentucky battled over free tuition when local officials proposed the “Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship Program” to give free tuition to students pursuing a two-year degree or certificate. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin vetoed the bill for the 2016-17 school year, but left $15.9 million available to fund the program for the 2017-18 school year. Like many other programs, the Work Ready Scholarship is a “last-dollar” award for recent high school graduates that will cover any unmet tuition and mandatory charges after other state and federal financial aid has been applied.

In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo wants to make her state the first to provide two years of free tuition at public college for in-state residents. The cost will hover around $30 million per year, which would come out of Rhode Island’s annual $9 billion budget. Raimondo submitted her plan on Jan.19, and it needs to be approved by the state’s legislature before it’s implemented.

At least two states have gone all in when it comes to free tuition. In 2014, Tennessee became the first state to enact a program to make community colleges tuition-free for at least some high school graduates. Oregon followed up in June 2015, when it launched The Oregon Promise, a state grant program that provides free tuition at Oregon community colleges to all qualified high school grades and those receiving their GEDs. Full-time students can receive awards ranging from $1,000 to $3,397 per year, depending on their financial need and other state and federal grants they’ve been awarded. The program officially launched for the 2016-17 school year, and Ben Cannon, executive director of the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, says the feedback has been positive.

“We have seen a very enthusiastic student response to the Oregon Promise program, greater even than expected,” Cannon told Yahoo Finance. “Nearly 7,000 recent high school graduates and GED completers received the grant at Oregon community colleges in Fall, 2016.”

There are currently 12 states that have some type of state legislative activity happening around this issue. There are also 25 states that have a local promise program in place, which is defined as a place-based scholarship program making college tuition free for at least one college.

As for New York, Cuomo’s proposal is part of the 2017 budget, so local legislators will debate the topic and cast their votes by April 1. It will no doubt be an uphill battle, but Sanders sees it as an opportunity to set a new standard. “I urge New York legislators to pass this enormously important proposal, and become a model for the rest of the nation,” he said.

If Cuomo’s proposal passes, New York could be the first state offer free tuition at all public colleges and universities.

Brittany is a writer at Yahoo Finance. 

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