The Reality of New York State’s Free College Education Bill

The Excelsior Scholarship gives students in New York a free college education.

Julie Brieau /

There are posters for the Excelsior Scholarship all over the walls of the NYC subway stations I frequent. They proudly proclaim that the scholarship allows any New York resident to attend public, in-state two-year and four-year colleges for free if their families make up to $125,000. It’s a big deal; while many other states have promised free community college and certificate programs to residents, New York is the first state to cover the full cost of a bachelor’s degree at a public university for middle-class Americans. However, not everyone is pleased. The state bill that introduced the Excelsior Scholarship has come under scrutiny for many reasons, and you won’t find any of the following details on those posters I mentioned:

  1. Students have to take 30 credits a year to qualify for the scholarship. While New York legislators argue that this mandate will lead to higher graduation rates, advocates for low-income students say that it puts strain on those who have to work in order to afford housing and other expenses. Students who do not earn all 30 credits within the school year will be responsible for paying back the award they received for their second terms. Furthermore, those students will no longer qualify to receive the Excelsior Scholarship in the future, even if they successfully complete 30 credits the following year.
  2. The Excelsior Scholarship cannot cover tuition for winter or summer terms. However, students can take classes during these terms to meet the 30-credit requirement. It doesn’t make sense that students should be given an option to spread out their course load if they will not be financially supported throughout the entire year.
  3. Transfer students will find it difficult to qualify. Students who decide to transfer to a different college will only qualify for the Excelsior Scholarship if they do not take any time off from school and if they are on track to complete an associate’s degree in two years or a bachelor’s degree in four. It is very rare that all of a student’s previously earned credits will be accepted by the new school, which means that transferring can derail a student’s plan to complete a degree in the two- or four-year time frame. If this happens, students will be disqualified from receiving the scholarship.
  4. Students who have started a degree but have taken time off will not qualify. While there is no age limit for the scholarship, students who have taken any college credits in the past without staying on track to complete their associate’s in two years or bachelor’s in four years will not qualify.
  5. Students have to live and work in New York after they graduate for as many years as they received the scholarship or they will have to pay back their scholarship in the form of a no-interest loan. This stipulation is the most widely contested because it prevents recent graduates from expanding their job searches to other states. On the surface, it may seem like this benefits the state of New York economically because it keeps highly qualified graduates within its borders, paying taxes and working in skilled professions. However, NY businesses that are seeking employees can just as easily fill their open positions with people who have studied outside of New York. When these people relocate to the state, they pay taxes, and New York does not lose anything by not having Excelsior graduates in their positions. Thus, only the students who have received the scholarship suffer. If they move for a job right after graduation, they will have to pay back the entirety of their scholarship, which could be as much as $25,880 for students who graduate from four-year bachelor’s programs. If they do not pursue options outside of the state, they could miss out on opportunities for higher pay. According to Douglas Webber, an assistant professor of economics at Temple University, “Research shows that the first job a graduate lands can have a major impact on their earnings in the future. Economists liken the labor market to a ladder—if you start on a lower rung, it’s harder to climb as high as you would have if you started on a higher rung.” Thus, the stipulation that students stay in state after graduation may negatively impact their lifelong financial standing.

Clearly, there are many issues with the Excelsior Scholarship for it is not as inclusive or student-focused as many feel it should be. Nonetheless, it will allow hundreds of thousands of families to qualify for free tuition in a country where annual tuition bills often exceed $50,000 a year. Representatives from many other states are eagerly watching to see how New York public institutions adapt and how students and families respond before implementing their own free tuition programs.

The state is giving student in New York free college education; this is the New York City skyline.

M. Shcherbyna /

I am proud to be a New Yorker and stand by as my state takes a historic step toward college accessibility for all. In years to come, I hope amendments will be made to the Excelsior Scholarship bill and that other states improve upon what we have established. Despite my frustration with the things I mentioned above, the posters I see in the subway stations remind me that progress is being made. I sincerely hope that generations to come will liken a college degree to a high school diploma in that it will be free and accessible to all who choose to pursue it.

About Megan Reynolds

Megan loves listening to podcasts while doing all of her favorite things: researching, cooking, taking long road trips, and running in freezing temperatures. Curious to a fault, Megan thinks her personality is best suited for teaching so that she can constantly learn alongside her students. While she pursues a master’s degree in New York City, she hopes to share her strategies for conquering admissions and financial aid with all students who are interested in pursuing higher education. Stay tuned to see if she can break her undergraduate habit, formed at Emerson College, of pulling multiple all-nighters fueled by a mixture of coffee and Swiss Miss—the poor student’s mocha.

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