Will free SUNY tuition be cut this fall? New York offers ominous warning
ALBANY - New York's free tuition program for SUNY and CUNY may face the chopping block due to the state's massive budget hole.
The Excelsior Scholarship program was started in 2017 and provides free tuition for students whose households earn less than $125,000 a year. SUNY tuition last fall was $7,070.
But the state agency that administers the program has yet to begin to process new applications for the program for the fall semester, citing the state's $13 billion budget gap due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"Please note that the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically reduced state revenues and the processing of new applications is pending on Federal assistance, which has been delayed since April," the Higher Education Services Corp. wrote on its website.
"Excelsior Scholarship awards may have to be reduced and/or prioritized for current recipients as provided for under the program."
Getting free tuition in New York
SUNY officials have estimated between 22,000 to 25,000 students received the Excelsior Scholarship in fall 2018 at the 64 SUNY and CUNY campuses. The state spends about $120 million on the program.
It covers the full annual tuition for income-eligible students who meet certain academic standards, such as getting good grades, graduating on time and living in the state after college.
SUNY tuition payments for the fall semester are due in August, the Times Union in Albany reported, and Excelsior participants are automatically re-enrolled when they fill out their financial aid forms, but first-time SUNY students are unable to currently apply.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has hailed the program as the first in the nation, and he unveiled it in January 2017 alongside Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the former presidential candidate and advocate for free college tuition.
Then he signed the bill into law with Hillary Clinton, the former New York senator and presidential candidate, in April 2017.
There is also a tuition program for private colleges in New York. It is called the Enhanced Tuition Awards and allows the colleges and the state to split up to $6,000 in tuition for students.
Ending the program would be a huge financial hit to students amid an uncertain return to campus this fall because of coronavirus. SUNY has yet to detail its plans for the fall.
The program is considered "the last dollar," meaning it pays the tuition for students when other tuition assistance options are exhausted, which is for students whose families earn less than about $80,000 a year.
What is the future of free SUNY tuition?
Cuomo in January sought to increase the income eligibility to $150,000 a year, but it was not included in the final deal in April as the state wrestled with the virus' impact on the economy.
Cuomo has called almost daily in recent months for a federal bailout for states due to the pandemic, saying New York would have to cut services without the aid from Washington.
Congress is currently working on a new stimulus package, and Cuomo has urged federal lawmakers to include help for states to fund schools, emergency workers and public programs.
Cuomo said Sunday the pandemic has cost the state about $5 billion. New York has had the most deaths in the nation due to COVID-19 — about 25,100.
"We know that we'd have to have drastic budget cuts if we don't get aid," Cuomo told reporters on a conference call.
"So I'd ask the Republican congresspeople, put your politics aside. Stand up, call on your colleagues to actually do the right thing and represent the people of the state rather than your political party, and do it as loudly as you play politics for your party.
"Because if we don't get state aid from Washington it's going to be a very bad situation for this state and the people in this state.
Joseph Spector is the New York state editor for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JSPECTOR@Gannett.com or followed on Twitter: @GannettAlbany