"Other countries have already done it. It's time this country catches up."
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo just announced a landmark plan to make college tuition-free for low- and middle-income families in New York.
The plan is called the Excelsior Scholarship, and it will take effect over the next three years, applying to any student attending a two- or four-year state or city university whose family earns less than $125,000 a year.
Considering that the median household income in New York state was $60,850 in 2015, this could make a huge difference for many families trying to send their kids to college.
"College is a mandatory step if you really want to be a success ... and this society should say we're going to pay for college because you need college to be successful," Cuomo said in his Jan. 3 announcement alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders, who made debt-free college a big part of his presidential campaign. "Other countries have already done it. It's time this country catches up."
Sanders is far from just a silent backer of the project. He took the stage to give a short speech expressing his support for Cuomo's plan, later tweeting, "If New York makes public colleges and universities tuition-free, mark my words, state after state will follow."
Cuomo's plan could be America's first big step toward what many schools across Europe already offer: free or nearly free college tuition for all residents.
Public colleges in Germany, Norway, Iceland, and Finland all offer free college tuition for students, no matter their household income — those countries even offer the same deal to international students, which is why American students sometimes opt to go abroad for their degrees.
Free tuition does come with a cost. The money has to come from somewhere, after all.
The reason colleges in other countries are able to offer free tuition is because their citizens pay more in taxes. Countries like Germany also have lower enrollment percentages than the U.S. as a whole.
New York has the third-largest state economy in the United States (on par with all of Canada), with over 1.3 million students attending public colleges. So the program could end up costing much more than the current proposal of $163 million.
There is evidence that tuition-free programs for middle- and low-income students do work in the U.S. on a smaller scale.
In 2015, Stanford University announced tuition would be free for students from households earning $125,000 and under. In fact, all the Ivy League schools (along with other privately owned schools) offer tuition wavers for households earning $75,000 or less. Just as a state would draw from taxes, these schools draw from student tuition funds and other funding sources to make economic diversity on campus a reality.
Cuomo's plan for one of the wealthiest states in the country has the potential to set a precedent to finally open those doors to any American who wants to walk through them.
Higher education should not only be available to the financially savvy or those lucky enough to be born into wealthy families. No one should have to go into severe debt to get the degree they need to get a job, contribute to the economy, and succeed in life.
You can show your support and learn more about the Excelsior Scholarship program here.