Why New York's 'tuition-free' colleges will still cost $14,000

New York state could soon offer free college tuition
New York state could soon offer free college tuition

Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing to make New York the first state in the country to adopt a tuition-free plan at both two-year and four-year public colleges.

The Excelsior Scholarship aims to make college more affordable for middle-class New Yorkers by lowering the cost and encouraging students to finish their degrees on time.

"A college education is not a luxury -- it is an absolute necessity for any chance at economic mobility," Cuomo said when the plan was announced.

But "tuition-free" isn't the same as free.

Though Cuomo's plan would lower a student's total bill by up to about $6,000 a year, it could still cost them $14,000 for fees and room and board.

At the State University of New York (SUNY), tuition costs $6,470 for the current school year, while the City University system (CUNY), costs $6,330.

At a SUNY, fees cost $1,590 annually and room and board was $12,590 this year -- adding $14,180 to the tuition. Books could run you another $1,000.

At a CUNY, fees cost an average of $475. Most students commute, but if you're living away from home, the school tells students to expect to pay $10,386 for housing and $3,283 for food -- adding $14,144. None of these costs would be covered under Cuomo's proposal.

Plus, not every New Yorker would qualify for free tuition.

As it currently stands, you'd have to fit these criteria:

1. Enrolled full-time at a SUNY or CUNY school.

2. Have New York residency status for at least one year.

3. Parents (or you and your spouse) must earn an adjusted gross income of less than $100,000. The income cap raises to $110,000 in 2018 and eventually reaches $125,000 in 2019.

Unlike proposals in other states, it wouldn't matter how old you are or when you graduated high school. As written, there's no requirement to stay in-state and work in New York after graduation.

Related: Rhode Island governor proposed two years of free tuition

You don't have to get stellar grades, but you do need to keep the minimum GPA to stay in school and on track to graduate on time (in two years for an Associate's and four years for a Bachelor's).

That's no small feat. About half of full-time SUNY students currently finish a Bachelor's degree in four years, and about 26% do at CUNY. That doesn't count those who chose to enroll part time.

While lawmakers want to see those completion rates rise, some have said they don't want to exclude students who have to go part time, for whatever reason, from the scholarship.

As proposed, students need to take at least 15 credits a semester to qualify, but a spokesman for the governor said he was willing to work with the legislature to make exceptions for those who encounter a financial or personal hardship and need to take some time off.

Related: New Yorkers start debate on free tuition

Middle class families who earn between roughly $80,000 and $125,000 a year will benefit the most from Cuomo's tuition-free plan.

A family who earns more -- no matter how many kids they have -- don't qualify for the scholarship as proposed.

And it's likely that anyone who earns less already pays nothing for tuition because of a combination of need-based aid received from the federal Pell Grant program, the state's Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), and the school.

Nearly half of full-time SUNY students and more than 60% of those at CUNY already pay nothing for tuition, according to the school systems.

suny free tuition

Related: There's a hunger problem on America's college campuses

Advocates say that a broad "tuition-free" proposal will encourage some people to apply to college who may not have before -- including some who might have already been eligible for financial aid.

"For young people who have written college off because they assume they can't afford it, they'll hear about this and think, 'Maybe college isn't out of reach for me,'" Zimpher said at her State of the University address in January.

SUNY and CUNY are still crunching the numbers to estimate how many more students they might be able to accept. The governor's office is predicting a 10% jump in enrollment across the state colleges.

The plan still needs approval from the state legislature. Lawmakers have until April 1 to vote and make changes.

Would you benefit from Cuomo's plan? Email Katie.Lobosco@cnn.com to share your story.

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