Over the weekend, New York became the first state in the country to offer tuition-free college to middle-class students from families earning less than $125,000 a year, as the State Assembly and Senate approved a plan crafted by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.
The scholarship plan, included in the budget for fiscal year 2017-2018, will be offered to students attending the state’s public colleges – SUNY and CUNY. However, community organizations questioned the fact that the program excludes undocumented people.
“The governor made a conscious decision to exclude thousands of young undocumented New Yorkers from his signature Excelsior Scholarship (…),” said the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) in a press release. “His decision is mystifying and puts the lie to the governor’s professed support for the New York State DREAM Act. A college affordability plan that leaves out undocumented students will only widen the opportunity gap and cripple New York’s economy.”
According to estimates from the CUNY DREAMers organization, there are an approximate 6,000 undocumented students currently enrolled in the CUNY system. On average, undergraduate studies at public universities in New York state cost between $6,330 and $6,470 per semester and between $4,350 and $4,800 for associate degrees per semester.
Still, Gov. Cuomo celebrated the introduction of the proposed Excelsior Scholarship program back in January by announcing it alongside U.S. senator for Vermont and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, an outspoken advocate for free education.
“By providing tuition-free college to thousands of middle-class New Yorkers, we are restoring the promise of the American dream for the next generation (…),” said the governor in a press release. (…)
From joy to disappointment
The initial joy some students felt soon turned into disappointment. Mexican-born Elizabeth Sánchez, an undocumented political science student who lives in Brooklyn, said that, like her, many of her fellow students are left out of the groups who will benefit.
The program requires students to enroll full time in two- or four-year degrees at SUNY or CUNY, leaving part-time students out.
“Undocumented students are the group with the least access to financial and educational opportunities,” said Sánchez, 21, in a phone interview. “We are the future too, and we too have dreams. It is frustrating to see my parents fighting each day to pay the rent and the bills. At my house, everyone works, but it’s as if all that effort did not amount to anything when decisions are taken in Albany.”
According to New York State Youth Leadership Council estimates, of the nearly 4,500 undocumented high school students in New York state who graduate every year, only between 5 and 10 percent enroll in college because of the financial burden it signifies for their families.
“My parents’ income is less than $60,000 per year. That is my reality and the reality of many of my fellow students. If you don’t have the money, you don’t go to college. If you go to college, you get thousands of dollars in debt,” said a frustrated Sánchez. “When Sanders talks about free education, he includes working-class families, not just the middle-class. That part of his idea fell on deaf ears in Albany.”
Still, the governor’s office defends the plan, arguing that, at the moment, 80 percent of New York families have annual incomes of less than $125,000, which expands the spectrum of people who would benefit.
Cuomo’s office added that around 940,000 families with one college-age member meet the program’s requirements.
The proposal will be implemented gradually during the next three years. The governor’s office said that the first phase will start in the fall for New Yorkers with annual incomes of up to $100,000, and will expand in 2018 to cover people making $110,000 and again the following year for people making up to $125,000 per year.