The program, dubbed the Excelsior Scholarship, passed in the state budget on April 9. According to the governor, 80 percent of New York families are eligible.
“Seventy years ago, we made a decision as a society that people needed high school,” Cuomo said. “We had free public high school for everyone. That was a bold step.
“Today, college is what high school was 70 years ago,” he added. “It is not a luxury, it is a necessity. If we’re not going to have it on the federal level, we’re not going to be denied it in New York State.”
Cuomo, who grew up in Queens, attributed stagnant wages, the rising cost of college, and overwhelming loans as reasons why students are struggling to obtain higher education. According to the governor, since 2008 95 percent of jobs created require some type of college education.
He also made the case that an educated workforce leads to a stronger local economy. New York used to have the most educated workforce, but it’s currently ranked 12th in the country.
The United States also used to have the most educated workforce in the world, but now it has dropped to 11th.
“We have to fundamentally change the system so college and growth is available to everyone,” Cuomo said, “and we regain our place as the smartest state in the smartest nation and we are economically competitive all across this globe.”
Cuomo said the inspiration for the Excelsior Scholarship came from “a woman I know well,” referring to former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
When Cuomo first introduced the program back in January, he was joined by Vermont senator and another Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders.
“I heard an outrageously ambitious but irrefutably smart idea,” he said. “That idea was we should make college affordable. College should be accessible and free for middle-class families in this nation.”
The governor said the program will help fulfill the American Dream, where young people can do better than their parents and generations before them.
“This scholarship program is going to transform lives,” Cuomo said. “Tonight, there will be no child that puts their head on the pillow and wonders whether or not they’re going to have a chance to make it.”
The program will be phased in over three years, beginning with New Yorkers making up to $100,000 this fall. Next year, it will include families making up to $110,000, and then $125,000 by 2019.
Students who qualify must be in college full-time and average 30 credits per year to get the funding. A controversial part of the plan states that the students in the program are required to live and work in New York for as many years as they receive the scholarship.
According to the governor’s office, 84 percent of CUNY and SUNY students remain in New York after graduation.
Clinton lauded the scholarship program as “exactly the image that progressive leadership believes in and delivers on.”
“There is no more important issue than education, from early childhood through higher education,” she said to a roaring crowd. “I believe every single child and young person in New York and America deserves the chance to go as far as their hard work, skills and education will take them.”
Clinton said back when she was a student, kids from low and middle-income families had a “pretty good chance” to go to college and afford it. Both the states and the federal government invested in education, she said, so the economics worked out.
Now it’s much harder for working families to achieve that goal,.
“That’s upside down,” Clinton said. “What we need to be doing is throwing open the doors for everybody willing to work and achieve their education.”
Clinton said she hopes New York is the first of many states to enact tuition-free college programs in the country.
“Until they do, I want every young person in America to understand that if you move to New York and make your commitment to New York, you can get an affordable college education,” she said. “The Excelsior Scholarship is going to send a message of hope to countless families.
“Paying for college should not defer or destroy dreams,” she added. “With this Excelsior Scholarship Program, it will not.”
And Clinton had a message for her former colleagues in Congress.
“I’m hoping that the Congress will come to its senses and understand we don’t need to be building walls, we need to be building bridges,” she said. “The best bridge to the future is a good education.”
Students at LaGuardia Community College were pleased to see Cuomo’s plan come to fruition so quickly. Diana Pereyra, who is set to graduate to become a radiologic technologist, said she’s thinking about getting her bachelor’s degree in medicine at Hunter College.
“It’s amazing due to the fact that it’s going to benefit many families, especially here in New York,” she said. “There are a lot of students who need this in order to continue their education.”
Pereyra said she isn’t worried about the program requirement to stay in New York after graduation. She said she doesn’t see herself living anywhere else.
“I feel that it’s only fair. If I’m able to get my career and become a professional here in New York, why not give back to my community?” she said. “Why not give back to those who helped me?”
Liuer Lin, who is in her third semester studying accounting, said the Excelsior Scholarship would benefit not only her, but her two siblings. She said her family was relieved to hear about the program.
“It’s a heavy burden for my family to pay tuition,” she said. “I know how challenging it is to pay tuition instead of taking a loan.”
Lin said she plans to transfer to Baruch College, obtain her bachelor’s degree in accounting, and continue with her master’s degree. But she was also thinking about her younger siblings and cousins, who can “focus on their studies without worrying about paying for it.”
Yiwei Zhao, who heads academic affairs for the Student Government Association at LaGuardia, said most students who want to transfer to a four-year college are worried about tuition. They also have to pay for housing, textbooks and other needs, he said.
Although he works on the side, without the Excelsior Scholarship, Zhao said he would’ve had to become a part-time student.
“But this plan can bring, I hope, a better chance for me to be a full-time student in a four-year college,” he said.