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Top Cuomo aide defends free tuition program requirements

SUNY Oswego
Starting next year, some students at state schools like SUNY Oswego will have their tuition covered under New York's new Excelsior Scholarship.

After a week of criticism from the left and the right of the political spectrum, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget director is among those defending the state’s new free public college tuition program for some middle-class students.

Conservatives say Cuomo was just trying to win a headline for a potential 2020 presidential campaign by convincing the state Legislature to enact a plan to offer free tuition to middle-class students attending public colleges and universities.

Meanwhile, liberals say the state also should do more to help its poorest college students graduate, and attend better high schools so that they are more prepared for college in the first place.

But Cuomo and his top officials are essentially saying: Stop the sniping and give the program a chance.

Robert Mujica, Cuomo’s budget director, pointed out that it’s a pioneering program, and perhaps there will be growing pains and details to be worked out.

“This is the first time in the nation that anyone has had a program like this before,” Mujica said. “So, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Mujica said there are requirements to receiving the free tuition. Students must agree to live in the state one year before attending college and for four years after they graduate if they receive the free tuition for each year of their undergraduate studies.

He said graduates who choose to live in another state would have to pay the money back, interest-free, in a payment plan that is yet to be set up by the state’s Higher Education Services Corporation.

Mujica said there will be hardship waivers granted if a graduate can’t find a job or needs to move for family reasons.

The state already has residency requirements for some math and science teaching scholarships as well as medical school and nursing programs.

According to SUNY, 83 percent of graduates already remain in the state after graduation.

Mujica said the free tuition, which is technically known as the Excelsior program, is not available until after all other forms of aid — including the state’s existing Tuition Assistance Program and scholarships — are exhausted.

“It’s a last dollar scholarship,” Mujica said.

Room and board, as well as other fees and books, are not covered. Those costs can be twice the cost of tuition, which is about $6,500 a year.

Students also have to attend full time and graduate in four years.

Cuomo defended that requirement at a recent appearance, saying he did not want to encourage the increasing trend of students taking additional years to graduate. The governor said it was not that long ago when remaining in college longer than four years was considered slacker behavior.

“This reminds me of Animal House and Belushi,” Cuomo said, referring to the late 1970s frat boy movie starring John Belushi. “At one time, it was a joke that it took you seven years to finish a four-year college.”

It’s also going to take a little while for the system to apply for and receive the free tuition to be up and running. Some colleges require students to commit by May 1 for the fall semester, but the eligibility for the free tuition won’t be determined until a later date.

Mujica said the program is straightforward, though, and families can figure out fairly easily whether they will receive the funds. If the total family income is $100,000 or less this calendar year, then the public college or university tuition will be free for a student for the fall of 2017.

Families with income levels up to $125,000 a year will be eligible in two years, when the program is fully phased in. The colleges and universities will pay the student’s tuition in September and be reimbursed by the state in December.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.