New York Just Made Public College Tuition-Free — and Lifted a Huge Weight Off My Shoulders

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This past weekend, as I was mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and watching my kids play cards on the living room floor (i.e., fighting every two minutes and clobbering each other with pillows), something popped up on my feed that had me grinning ear to ear: New York had just become the largest state ever to make four-year college tuition-free for qualified families.

New York — aka my home state. I couldn’t believe it.

As a mom of two, who is frankly terrified about how on earth I’ll be able to send my two boys to college someday, I was immediately hopeful, but also semi-skeptical of what the catch would be. Would this truly be tuition-free, or just another scholarship (or worse — a dreaded loan)? And would average, middle-class families like mine actually qualify?

Turns out, it really is as awesome as I hoped it would be. According to The Washington Post, families who qualify will be offered full and complete tuition at any two- or four-year state colleges in New York (private colleges are not included here).

The program was approved by the New York State budget on Friday, and will be rolled out in three phases. Beginning in the fall of 2017, all families who earn less than $100,000 will qualify; in 2018, the qualifying income will increase to $110,000; and by 2019, the qualifying income will reach $125,000, where it is expected to stay, at least for now.

It’s estimated that 1 million families will qualify, and the only real stipulations are that students must be enrolled full-time in college, and that they remain in New York for a few years after graduating (2 years for students who attend community college, and 4 years for students who attend 4-year universities). It’s a “last dollar” tuition program, meaning that students need to first qualify for state aid and other scholarships, but the state will fill in any remaining tuition that needs to be paid.

My oldest child won’t be starting college for another eight years, so that would land me in the $125,000 bracket, which as of now, would qualify us. When I realized that, I let out a big sigh — one I don’t think I realized I’d been holding in until then.

Adults in the United States owe a whopping 1.26 trillion in student loan debt, which shakes out to an average of $16,929 each.
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You see, like many parents, finances have been a struggle for us. We’ve always gotten by well enough; but despite the fact that my husband and I work our butts off and are both college educated (we both have master’s degrees and my husband is Ivy League educated), we pretty much live paycheck to paycheck, and are saddled with an embarrassing amount of debt. And most of that debt is in student loans.

But we are far from alone: Adults in the United States owe a whopping 1.26 trillion in student loan debt, which shakes out to an average of $16,929 each. My husband and I both owe thousands, but are only able to pay the minimum off each month. That frustrating fact — and the fact that rent and childcare is absolutely astronomical in the New York area — is partly why the idea of someday sending our kids to college is slightly stressful. (OK, fine — make that panic-inducing.)

Now, I know that college tuition should not fall completely upon my husband and me. I have always hoped my kids would qualify for scholarships (merit-based, income-based, or whatever they can get), and that they would work during school to cover their tuition. But I also know just how much college tuition has skyrocketed since I went to college 20 years ago. (Shut up: I’m not that old.)

I also know what it’s like to spend your whole adult life paying off loans. And I really (really) do not want that for my kids. So to say I’m pretty ecstatic about this tuition-free college option in New York is a huge understatement.

Of course, it’s possible that one or both of our kids will not want to go to college for whatever reason, or will have their heart set on a non-state New York college, or an out-of-state college. (These days, my oldest is certain he wants to go to M.I.T., but he’s only 10, so I have a feeling that might change.) I definitely want to keep an open mind about it all, and not force my kids to do anything they don’t want to do. And if one of them gets a really great scholarship somewhere outside of New York, we will certainly weigh all our options.

But all that said, it’s still pretty amazing to know that there’s a sure-fire way my kids will have a shot at a quality education, no matter what. And the reassurance of knowing that this is huge for our family.

Of course, what would be even more amazing is if other states would follow suit. The fact is, as high as our cost of living is here in New York, we actually don’t rank quite as high as other states in terms of student loan debt owed. New Hampshire and Pennsylvania top this list, with staggering average student loan debts of $25,740 and $24,172, respectively. South Dakota, which is ranked the 5th-highest in terms of nationwide student debt, also ranks 25th in terms of average median income, which makes paying off that debt even more impossible.

But it seems like good news may in fact be brewing for some other states, too: So far, Tennessee, Oregon, and Minnesota have also instituted tuition-free community-college programs, and according to The Washington Post, there are at least 85 initiatives in other states to do the same. Momentum has been building for debt-free college for many years, with both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton marking it as a top priority on the campaign trail last year.

The Big Apple is definitely a trend-setting sort of state, and my hope is that New York is just the first of many states to realize how important it is that all kids, regardless of where they live, have a fair and equal shot at a quality higher education.

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