SUNY officials praise state's new free tuition plan

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV/CNN) - SUNY officials are praising a plan that would make education free for middle-class students.

An estimated 200,000 students will be eligible to attend New York’s SUNY and CUNY schools once the program is fully established.

The 2018 New York State Budget approved on Friday allows for SUNY and CUNY colleges to be tuition free for qualifying families.

While some states and cities have free tuition for community colleges, New York is the first to make tuition free for its four-year schools.

SUNY Chairman Carl McCall and Chancellor Nancy Zimpher applauded the budget deal in a statement released by the school, calling the plan "truly ground-breaking."

However, both Zimpher and McCall also said they’d hoped for more aid for community colleges, since they expect enrollment at those schools to grow under the new program.

The new initiative will be phased in over three years, beginning for New Yorkers making up to $100,000 annually in the fall of 2017, increasing to $110,000 in 2018, and reaching $125,000 in 2019.

The program will only be open to students who are taking 30 credits a year – a measure some lawmakers criticized because it excludes part-time students.

As the cost of textbooks can be prohibitively expensive, the Budget also invests $8 million to provide open educational resources, including electronic-books, to students at SUNY and CUNY.

The scholarship is structured to fill in the gap after accounting for other federal and state grants. Nearly half of full-time SUNY students, and more than 60% of those at CUNY, already pay nothing for tuition because of need-based federal Pell Grants or New York Tuition Assistance grants. Those students would not be eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship.

In the final proposal, Cuomo said the credit requirement is "flexible" so that any student facing hardship will be able to pause and restart the program, or take fewer credits one semester than another.

After they graduate, students who receive the scholarship must live and work in New York for the same number of years they received funding. If they leave the state, their scholarship will be converted into a loan. This requirement was not included in the governor's initial proposal.

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