New York Offers Free Tuition – But Be Careful Of This

New York State’s announcement this week at it would provide free college to students with family earnings under a certain threshold sounds like a very good thing. But while it will offer a helping hand to many in the state who might otherwise not be able to get a higher education, there’s one devil in the details you need to be aware of if you want to take advantage of the program.

A Big Break

Beginning in fall of this year, going to either City University of New York State (CUNY) or any of the State University of New York (SUNY) schools will become tuition free to students with family incomes of less than $100,000. per year. The number will rise to $125,000 over the next few years. The office of the governor estimates that over 900,000 families in the state will be eligible for free college tuition under the program.

While free college advocates (including Bernie Sanders – who stood next to NY Governor Andrew Cuomo when he first introduced the plan last year) are cheering the plan, there’s one provision in it you’ll want to be very aware of before signing up.

Stay At Home

Any student who takes advantage of the program will be required to live or work in New York State for the same number of years as he or she receives the tuition aid. In other words: take a four-year bachelor’s degree for free, and you’ll have to stay in New York State for four years. If you leave the state before then, your tuition aid will be changed over into a loan, which could saddle you with the same kind of onerous debt that’s plagued students across the country in recent years. (There are certain limited hardship provisions under which it will be possible to escape this requirement.)

SUNY and CUNY have never made a big effort to draw out-of-state students, unlike some other state college systems, and as a result, about 80% of their students come from New York and remain there after graduation. The rule may not affect many students, but it’s something to be aware of if you would like to attend a New York State school and then head off to another part of the country.

New Students By The Ton

Not much mentioned in the coverage of this new program is that fact that free tuition can draw more students than a school can handle. The state is providing relatively limited financial help to schools deal with a spike in free applicants. CUNY was actually founded as a free-tuition school. But a 1976 fiscal crisis in New York City, which provides a good deal of the school’s funding, made it necessary to start charging tuition. But because CUNY’s tuition was still low relative to other colleges, it has been overwhelmed by applicants during financial recessions. After the 2008 financial meltdown, on CUNY administrator commented “We’re teaching them in bathrooms and closets” because attendance spiked so much. Whether this much larger free-tuition program will have a similar effect remains to be seen.