New York City

State funding boost could make ‘free’ CUNY tuition a reality for more New Yorkers

January 27, 2020 Victoria Merlino
CUNY free tuition

An underwhelming state scholarship program originally billed as a way for tens of thousands of New Yorkers to attend CUNY and SUNY schools for free may be getting a boost in the next state budget to help it meet its lofty goals.

The Excelsior Scholarship, which covers tuition for a subset of CUNY and SUNY students, would widen its eligibility through Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2021 executive budget, introduced Tuesday.

Cuomo proposed raising Excelsior’s eligibility threshold, which would open the scholarship to more New York residents. Currently, students’ gross family income must be $125,000 or less to receive the scholarship, among other qualifications, but Cuomo hopes to raise it to $150,000 in the new budget.

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Cuomo claims that this change would allow more than 230,000 students who live in New York to go to CUNY or SUNY tuition-free. That has been nowhere near the case since the program debuted in 2017, when it was billed as a means for “hundreds of thousands” of students to attend college virtually debt free. 

The average college student who takes out loans for college is saddled with $29,000 worth of debt, according to the College Board, which puts further strains on students as they try to find apartments, buy houses and settle into their careers. 

CUNY has historically served as a means of upward economic mobility for many students and, when tuition was free, was known as the “Gateway to the Middle Class.” Roughly 61 percent of students’ parents do not have college degrees, according to fall 2018 enrollment data.

The effectiveness of Excelsior, however, is debatable. A 2018 study from the Center for an Urban Future found that only about 4,000 of the roughly 242,000 New York City students attending public and community colleges benefited from the scholarship, while only 20,086 students out of 633,543 undergraduates received it statewide. 

The scholarship’s tight credit requirements presented a major obstacle for students, the CUF study revealed. Students must take 30 credits each year that they are in college, a hurdle that can be hard to clear when just over half of all students in CUNY work more than 20 hours a week at a paying job, according to enrollment data. 


The state legislature will mull over Cuomo’s budget proposal before its final iteration is passed later this session. 


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