Should College Tuition Be Free?

New York is the first state to offer free college tuition to undergraduate students who attend a four-year university. Students whose families make less than $100,000 a year are eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship.
By Ali Selman
News Producer

Free college tuition is a reality in New York.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pledged in January to cover tuition costs at state colleges for middle-and low-income New York families, according to the New York Times.  The governor’s plan was approved early in April to make New York the first state to offer free tuition.

In January, Cuomo proposed a plan that would allow college students who have been accepted to state or city universities in New York free tuition if they or their family earned $125,000 or less a year. The plan is also eligible for students attending a two-year community college.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont supports Gov. Cuomo plan for free tuition after using the same platform for his 2016 presidential campaign, which won him a lot support of young Democrats.

Clare Ols, a biology major at the University of Alabama, said the presidential election brought a lot of attention to free tuition.

“Even though I don’t agree with all of Bernie Sanders’s policies, I think it was great that he brought the issue to the spotlight to create a discussion,” Ols said.

Just one week after Sanders introduced the College for All Act, New York approved the Excelsior Scholarship. Starting fall of 2017, undergraduate students in New York will be eligible for the scholarship, if their families make less than $100,000. According to NBC News, the income cap will go to $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 in 2019.

“I think it depends on the college and how conservative the area that it’s in to see if other states will follow in the footsteps of New York,” Ols said. “I think for any free tuition, there needs to be strict income and GPA cutoffs, but for low-income students, free tuition can be life changing because it’s impossible to have financial aid cover everything.”

When it comes to the Excelsior Scholarship, undergraduate students of any age are required to maintain a certain GPA, be full time and take 30 credits a year. This has caused controversy because the scholarship excludes part-time students. The scholarship doesn’t include cost of housing on campus, books or fees.

The scholarship also requires students after graduation to live and work in New York for the same number of years they received it. While this requirement was not in Cuomo’s original plan, the scholarship could be converted to a loan if the students leave New York.

Madison Mayfield, a marketing major at the University of Alabama who is originally from New York, thinks that the program could be beneficial.

“It seems pretty strict on the amount of credits the students have to take, so they wouldn’t be able to slack off, and it seems fair based on household income,” Mayfield said.  “It just worries me for future competitive advantage purposes that if the entire country implements this kind of program, then it’s going to be even harder to get an entry level job than it is now.”

While free tuition seems like a dream, not everyone agrees with the idea because of controversy about who is paying for New York’s free tuition.

Grace Chandler, an accounting major at the University of Alabama, believes that president-elect Bernie Sanders helped pave the way to the idea of free college tuition, but Chandler doesn’t support the idea.

“Being an accounting major, I know that everything costs something,” Chandler said, “This program will have to be funded somehow and my best guess is that they will be raising taxes to fund it. In a perfect world, yes, everyone would get free things and that’s a nice concept, but that’s not how the world works. It’s a harsh reality.”

The scholarship is in place to fill in the gaps of federal aid and state grants. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, federal loans are available to all students, but the Pell Grant program is the largest federal grants offered to undergraduate students.

The statistics for students receiving federal aid for both four-year and two-year colleges were higher in 2013-2014 than 2008-2009. As the expenses of colleges gets higher, so does the need for federal aid and scholarships for students.

As of now, New York is still the only state to offer free college tuition to four-year colleges or universities but states like Oregon and Tennessee have made college tuition free at any community college, regardless of income.