Hundreds of thousands of New York students would be able to attend college for free under a proposal announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to make state universities tuition-free for residents earning $125,000 or less.

The Democrat unveiled his plan Tuesday at LaGuardia Community College in Queens alongside U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Sanders, who pushed for free tuition at all U.S. public colleges during his Democratic presidential campaign, called Cuomo’s proposal “revolutionary.”

Comparing student loan debt to “starting a race with an anchor tied to your leg,” Cuomo said his Excelsior Scholarship program, if approved by lawmakers, would apply to full-time students who attend State University of New York or City University of New York colleges, including two-year community colleges.

“It should be a wake-up call to this nation,” Cuomo said, “to say if you really want to be competitive globally, we have to have the best educated workforce, and that means we have to have college for every child, man or woman who wants to attend.”

Concerns about the nation’s collective $1.3 trillion in student loan debt – more than either credit card or auto loan debt – have prompted the federal government, states and some schools to offer debt forgiveness or relief programs. Tennessee and Oregon have enacted programs to cover residents’ tuition costs at community colleges and some cities have tuition-free programs for eligible students headed to certain colleges.

Under Cuomo’s more expansive plan, an estimated 940,000 New York households with college-aged children would be eligible. The program would be phased in over three years, beginning this fall, with those earning up to $100,000. About 80 percent of all New York households earn less than the $125,000 threshold.


The program would cover tuition costs that remain once other state and federal aid is applied, at an estimated cost of about $163 million per year, Cuomo’s office said.

SUNY and CUNY annual tuition averages about $6,500 for a bachelor’s degree and $4,350-$4,880 for an associate’s degree.

“If New York state does it this year, mark my words, state after state will follow,” Sanders said.

New York has the nation’s largest public university system, with 440,000 students spread among 64 campuses across the state.

Members of the Assembly’s Democratic majority have sponsored similar proposals in the past, said spokesman Michael Whyland, who called affordable higher education a priority.

A spokesman for the Republican-controlled state Senate said majority members have long supported expanding eligibility for the state’s Tuition Assistance Program to help middle-class families.


“While we will have to review the specifics when the governor releases his Executive Budget, this proposal appears to move us in a positive direction,” spokesman Scott Reif said.

State higher education leaders said the plan, which also drew praise from U.S. Education Secretary John King Jr., would incentivize both full-time enrollment and college completion.

“Gov. Cuomo’s plan will ensure true success for our students while also protecting the state’s investment in public higher education,” SUNY Chairman H. Carl McCall and Chancellor Nancy Zimpher said in a statement.

New York has the nation’s largest public university system, with 440,000 students spread among 64 campuses across the state.

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