A New York state assemblyman from Orange County in the Hudson Valley is drafting legislation to repeal a clause in the new tuition-free pubic college program for middle-class students. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation Wednesday enacting the program. WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne has more.
Former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined Governor Cuomo for the bill signing.
“So let’s go make it official and watch as the governor signs the Excelsior Scholarship legislation,” Clinton said.
Governor Cuomo, calling the program the first of its kind in the nation, signed the legislation at LaGuardia Community College in Queens.
“The idea is very simple,” Cuomo said. “We have free public college for any family who’s making $125,000 or below, so no child will be denied college because they can’t afford it, and the dream of opportunity is for everyone.”
But that dream of opportunity, says Democratic Assemblyman James Skoufis, should not be limited to having to work in New York. Skoufis believes the free tuition program has shortcomings and missed opportunities.
“From many different angles here, the program falls short, but this last-minute surprise, which I think caught a lot of people off-guard, including myself, that was snuck in there, is this work requirement,” says Skoufis. “After graduating, not only do you have to live in New York, which has some merit, but you also have to work in New York if you are a beneficiary of the Excelsior Scholarship. That’s hugely, hugely problematic.”
The program requires students to live and work in-state for the same number of years after graduation as they received the scholarship while in school. If not, explains Skoufis, their scholarship reverts to a loan.
“For crying out loud, we border five states here in New York — Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey and Massachusetts,” Skoufis says. “And for my constituents, in particular, many, many of them work in northern New Jersey, for example. Across the river, many residents who live in Westchester, Putnam or Dutchess, they work in Connecticut or western Massachusetts.”
Rockland County State Senator David Carlucci, an Independent Democrat whose district borders New Jersey, supports Cuomo’s work provision.
“One of the long-term economic issues that we have in New York state is the brain drain,” Carlucci says. “So we have to do what we can to protect the long-term economy of New York state.”
Carlucci says both the residency and work provisions will help prevent brain drain.
“But I think having the residency requirement for the students that we’ve invested so much in long-term winning strategy not just in competing with New Jersey but other states and other nations.”
Skoufis sees merit in the residency requirement, but not in the work portion.
“But there’s no point other than to be really unnecessarily punitive that you’re going to include this work requirement. So I’m looking to repeal it. We’re introducing legislation to that end,” Skoufis says. “And we’re also correcting, while we’re at it, another provision where the governor’s Excelsior Program does not make any exemption, there’s no carve-out for military individuals, servicemen and women. They should have that work and residency provision deferred while they’re in the military. It’s the only right thing to do. And so we’re also including that piece in the bill as well.”
Skoufis has advocated for a tuition-free SUNY and CUNY since he introduced legislation to that end in early 2014. He says the Excelsior Scholarship Program is a small step forward, but criticizes the governor’s program for not going far enough to combat the rising cost of public colleges. Here’s Cuomo.
“This state used to have the most educated workforce in the United States of America. And that’s important. When I’m trying to bring a business to come to New York, you know what they ask me? They ask me do we have the educated workforce in New York,” Cuomo said. “The state with the most educated workforce is that state that is going to succeed long term from an economic development point of view.”
A Cuomo spokesman, in an emailed statement says 84 percent of SUNY and CUNY students stay in New York post graduation, a number that includes students who came from out of state. He also says the law allows for hardship provisions, and taking a job out of state as a necessity likely will be one of the issues to be addressed by the Higher Education Services Corporation during the regulation writing process.