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Groups pan New York's free college tuition program

Immigrants, part-time students criticize the program's restrictions.
New York state free tuition
Sheldon Hall at SUNY Oswego. Groups criticize Cuomo's new free-tuition program for eligible students public college. Creative Commons/Kim

An achievement for advocates of free tuition at public New York colleges has disappointed some, including undocumented immigrants, part-time students and experts concerned about how public and private universities will accommodate a new dynamic in admissions and financial aid.

On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship, a first-in-the-nation program that provides free tuition to full-time college students whose families earn up to $125,000 a year, passed the state budget vote and will be phased in as early as fall of 2017.

“This budget ensures that our young people will have a full and equal opportunity to compete for high-paying jobs, without having to incur a mountain of debt in the process,” Cuomo wrote in an op-ed in the Daily News.

Although Cuomo had originally tried to include undocumented immigrants in the legislation, the program that passed the vote requires eligible students to be U.S. citizens, a permanent resident or have refugee status.

“His decision is mystifying and puts the lie to the Governor’s professed support for the New York State DREAM Act,” the New York Immigration Coalition’s executive director Steve Choi said in a statement Monday.

Students who cannot attend college full-time also feel slighted.

“As a mother of two, I have attended 2 CUNY schools, BMCC and CCNY, part-time while working full time,” said Rosa Valiente, who is currently attending CUNY School of Law. “I would have greatly benefited from the tuition-free program, as I'm sure many other non-traditional students would.”

Bart Astor, author of “Graduate from College Debt Free,” said that while this is an excellent step for affordable higher education, there could be many downsides, including the possibility of overcrowding at public colleges, shifts in admissions standards and an income threshold that might be punitive to the wrong people.

“Are you going to have to have a 4.0 grade point to get in?” Astor wondered.

“We are already subsidizing wealthy people with very low public school tuition,” Astor said, referring to the $3,500 to $6,700 annual tuition at New York’s public colleges. “How will people feel about their tax dollars potentially going to the wealthy?”

He also wonders how the income eligibility will pan out.

“Thresholds are by definition pretty unfair." he said. "If I make $99,999 I will qualify, but if I make $100,000 plus one, I won’t.”

His said his concern is that people might be able to show an eligible income and still have sizable assets, or hide income in a private business, while someone with a set salary and no deductions might be disqualified for slightly exceeding the limit.