New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday a proposal that would make his state’s public colleges tuition-free for families that earn less than $125,000 a year, potentially turning New York into a proving ground for an idea beloved by progressive Democrats and maybe—just maybe—giving him a running start in the race for his party’s 2020 nomination.
Cuomo’s plan—which he’s absurdly dubbed the “excelsior scholarship” (it’s New York’s state motto, but come on)—would benefit students at both two- and four-year schools. Undergraduates would still be required, however, to pay room and board, which can reach more than $14,000 at the state’s flagship, SUNY–Binghamton. The in-state sticker price for tuition at the State University of New York’s four-year colleges is currently $6,470.
“If you come from any family making $125,000 or less, the state will provide free tuition,” Cuomo said during an event today at LaGuardia College. “It is going to be the first program like it in the United States of America. It’s once again New York leading the way.”
Right now, Cuomo estimates the plan will cost $163 million. That’s remarkably cheap in the context of New York’s $156 billion state budget. According to the New York Times, however, “the administration acknowledges that estimate could be too low—or too high—depending on participation.” So we may have to wait for something approximating a realistic cost forecast.
Cuomo was joined for the big unveiling by none other than Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who popularized the idea of eliminating public college tuition during his run for the presidency. However, the governor’s proposal is actually a bit closer to Hillary Clinton’s free-tuition plan, which was also aimed at families earning less than $125,000. Between Cuomo’s minimum wage bill, which Clinton cited as a model for the nation, his gun control legislation, universal pre-K in New York City, and the new college plan (assuming it passes the state Legislature, where Cuomo has a fairly strong record), the Empire State is starting to look a lot like a model of what life under a Hillary-style progressive government might look like. Of course, Cuomo, who is very obviously itching for a shot at Donald Trump in four years, also wants the approval of the party’s social-democratic standard-bearer.
That speaks to the lasting legacy of the Democratic primary. The 2016 election turned out to be a disaster for progressives on a national level. But progressives are getting a consolation prize in states where Democrats retain power. Ambitious governors like Cuomo are going to move left where they can to appeal to the Sanders wing, and that means ideas like tuition-free college might become a reality, at least in some parts of the country.