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New York's Free College Tuition Plan: Is It A Good Idea?

New York's Free College Tuition Plan: Is it a Good Idea? main image

In the build-up to the 2016 presidential election in the US, Bernie Sanders mobilized support from millions of young people by pledging to make college and university tuition free. Sanders may never have secured the Democratic nomination, but his dream of free tuition is a step closer to reality.

Earlier this month, New York announced it will become the first US state to offer free tuition at public universities through its new program of Excelsior scholarships. However, the news isn’t quite as positive as the headlines would suggest.

Yes, working and middle-class in-state residents will be able to study two-year and four-year courses at public universities for free, but this is far from the revolutionary change proposed by Sanders on the campaign trail.

Initially, the free tuition will be limited to students from families making less than $100,000 in 2017. This restriction will be raised to $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 the year after, but other conditions will still need to be met. For example, you’ll need to be enrolled full-time and meet a certain GPA threshold throughout your time at university.

At least some students will be able to get through university without racking up debt though, right? Well, this free tuition plan can’t even guarantee that. As several researchers have pointed out, this plan does nothing to alleviate the other causes of student debt. According to the State University of New York, in-state costs to attend the college (excluding tuition and fees) can be as high as $16,570. This free tuition plan will do absolutely nothing to help students cover this cost.

Concerns have also been raised over the impact the offer of free tuition will have on the state’s private universities, which may now see a decline in applications by students from poorer backgrounds. This, in turn, could affect the diversity on campus at these universities or cause them to drastically re-think their fee structure.

Will you qualify for free tuition in New York?

To qualify for an Excelsior Scholarship this year, you must:

  • Be an in-state resident
  • Come from a family with total household income of $100,000 per year or less
  • Be looking to enroll full-time at a public college or university
  • Average 30 credits per year (including Summer and January semesters)
  • Live and work in New York after graduation for the same number of years as you received the scholarship

Top public colleges and universities in New York

Not sure where you should study in New York? Here’s a breakdown of the best-performing public institutions in the state.

University at Buffalo SUNY

The State University of New York at Buffalo is a public research university and the highest-ranked public university in the state in the QS World University Rankings® 2016-2017. Ranked 342nd in the world, the university is home to the largest state-operated medical school, dental school, education school, business school and engineering school.

It also has New York’s only state law school, architecture and urban planning school, and pharmacy school.

Worth considering if you’d like to study: Archaeology, Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Medicine, Pharmacy and Pharmacology.

Stony Brook University

The State University of New York at Stony Brook is a sea-grant and space-grant research university and is ranked joint 390th in the world in the latest QS World Rankings. More than 24,500 students are enrolled here and, in addition to achievements in research, the university has several successful sports teams.

Worth considering if you’d like to study: Physics and Astronomy.

City University of New York

CUNY is the largest urban university in the United States, with more than 270,000 degree-credit students and 208 nationalities represented by its student population. Ranked 501-550 in the most recent QS World Rankings, CUNY is composed of 27 different institutions, including CUNY Medical School and the New York City College of Technology.

Worth considering if you’d like to study: Accounting and Finance, Anthropology, Archaeology, Architecture, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Communication and Media Studies, Economics, Education, English Language and Literature, Environmental Sciences, Geography, History, Law, Linguistics, Mathematics, Modern Languages, Performing Arts, Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology.

Sign up to receive alerts for when applications to the Excelsior Scholarship open.

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Written by Craig OCallaghan
As editor of, Craig oversees the site's editorial content and network of student contributors. He also plays a key editorial role in the publication of several guides and reports, including the QS Top Grad School Guide.

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Hi, I have a question about this new free college tuition plan. I'm an American citizen; I was born and raised in NY. However, a few years ago I moved out of the country and completed my high school studies there. Do I qualify for this free tuition plan?

hi i am bachelor in electronics and communication wish to carry on master's pls tel me how can i get scholarship i am from india

Hi Nishant, please take a look at our list of scholarships to study in the US.

Hi am a bachelor in sociology an anthropology.wish to carry on master's studies in Urban planing. Pls aid for tuition free studies in USA

Hi Cliff, I'm afraid you will need to pay tuition fees to study in the US, however you might be able to find a scholarship to help with costs (fully funded scholarships are possible but rare). We've listed a range of scholarships to study in the US here and you can read more on studying in the US at graduate level here. Hope this helps! 

Hi, I am a Bachelor of Physiotherapy student from India. As I would like to pursue Doctor of Physiotherapy in USA, kindly help me to find the tuition free studies.

Hi Jerry, I'm afraid it's not possible for an international student to study in the US with no tuition fees, however you can find a range of scholarships to study in the US here

pls how can i sutdy in canada as an o leavel... i need an information pls