There are a lot of strings attached to New York’s tuition-free plan

The plan is not as progressive as it appears.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a cabinet meeting in the Red Room at the Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017 in Albany, N.Y. CREDIT: Hans Pennink
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a cabinet meeting in the Red Room at the Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017 in Albany, N.Y. CREDIT: Hans Pennink

The New York legislature approved Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to make tuition free for students whose families earn $125,000 a year or less on Sunday. New York would be the first state to adopt such a plan, which 940,000 families would be eligible for by 2019. Although the plan, named the Excelsior Scholarship, is a huge milestone for college affordability, students must read the fine print.

The Excelsior Scholarship comes with a huge caveat. After recipients graduate, they must work and live in New York for the same period of time they received financial assistance from the scholarship. If they don’t live and work in the state, the scholarship becomes a loan. This addition to the bill is controversial because critics say it limits the economic mobility of students and raises questions about enforcement.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, tweeted that the addition was “bad public policy” that would “penalize talented students” who go to graduate school or go into military service. Goldrick-Rab said that without the requirement, the plan would have simplified and clarified the student aid system for many students.

Students who have fewer and lower quality job opportunities in their state wouldn’t be able to look elsewhere, critics say. Worse, research shows that taking a lower-quality job after college will negatively affect the graduate’s earnings for the rest of their career.

“I am deeply concerned about Cuomo’s claims to make college free given the trickery of this requirement,” Goldrick-Rab told ThinkProgress.

Although eligible students will pay nothing for tuition and the deal provides $8 million for free online education materials, the scholarship doesn’t address the high costs of room and board, which are major barriers for students who wish to attend college.

Students attending a State University of New York or City University of New York school will be able to apply for the Excelsior Scholarship. The tuition plan will be phased in over three years. Families making $125,000 will be eligible for the scholarship in 2019. The cost to attend these colleges is already pretty low, at $6,470 annually for a four-year program and $4,350 for a community college program.

The cost of living on campus dwarfs tuition, however. SUNY estimates that on average room and board, books, and fees adds $14,180 to the cost of attending college. The cost of room and board, fees, and food when attending a CUNY school comes to $14,144. Middle-class students whose families earn between $80,000 and $125,000 will get the most out of the plan, according to CNN Money. Students must also take 30 credits a year to be eligible, which means part-time students would be excluded.

Fifty percent of SUNY students and more than 60 percent of CUNY students don’t pay tuition, since they receive Pell Grants and New York State Tuition Assistance Program grants.

The cost of transportation, food, and housing can be heavy burdens for college students. Food and housing insecurity is fairly common among community college students. Two-thirds of community college students struggle with food insecurity and one half are housing insecure, according to a research report released in March from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab in collaboration with the Association of Community Colleges Trustees, that surveyed 33,000 community college students in 24 states.