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Top Cuomo aid defends free tuition program requirements

National Public Radio

Governor Cuomo’s budget director is among those defending the state’s new free public college tuition program for some middle class students, after a week of criticism from the left and the right of the political spectrum.

Conservatives say Governor Cuomo was just trying to win a headline for a potential 2020 presidential campaign by convicting the legislature to enact a plan to offer free tuition to middle class students attending public colleges and universities. Meanwhile liberals say the state should also do more to help it’s poorest college students graduate, and attend better high schools so that they are more prepared for college in the first place.

But Cuomo and his top officials are saying, essentially - stop the sniping and give the program a chance. Governor Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Mujica , points out that it’s a pioneering program and that perhaps there will be growing pains and details to be worked out.

“This is the first time in the nation that anyone has had a program like this before,” Mujica said. “So you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Mujica says yes, there are requirements to receiving the free tuition.

Students must agree to live in the state one year before attending college and for four years after they graduate, if they receive the free tuition for each year of their undergrad studies.

He says graduates who choose to live in another state instead, would have to pay the money back, interest free, in a payment plan that is yet to be set up by the state’s Higher Education Services Corporation.

And he says there will be hardship waivers granted, if a graduate can’t find a job or needs to move for family reasons.

The state already has residency requirements for some math and science teaching scholarships as well as medical school and nursing programs.

According to SUNY, 83 percent of graduates remain in the state already after graduation anyway.

Mujica says the free tuition, which is technically known as the Excelsior program, is not available until after all other forms of aid, including the state’s existing Tuition Assistance Program, and scholarships are exhausted.

“It’s a last dollar scholarship,” Mujica said.

Room and board, as well as other fees and books are not covered. Those costs can be twice the cost of tuition, ?which is $6,470 at SUNY and $6,330 at  CUNY 4-year institutions.?

?Governor Cuomo defended that requirement at a recent appearance, saying he did not want to encourage the increasing trend of students taking additional years to graduate. The governor says it was not that long ago when   remaining in college longer than 4 year was considered  slacker behavior.

“This reminds me of Animal House and Belushi,” Cuomo said, referring to the late 1970’s frat boy movie starring John Belushi. “At one time it was a joke that it took you seven years to finish a four-year college.”

It’s also going to take a little while for the system to apply and receive the free tuition to be up and running. Some highly competitive private colleges require students to commit by May 1 for the fall semester, but the eligibility for free tuition at a public college won’t be determined until a later date. , Mujica, the governor’s budget director, says the program is straightforward, though  and families can figure it out fairly easily whether or not they will receive the funds. If the total family income is $100,000 or less this calendar year, then the public college or university tuition will be free for a student for the fall of 2017. Families with income levels up to $125,000 a year will be eligible when the program is fully phased in in two years. The colleges and universities will pay the students tuition in September, and be reimbursed by the state in December.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.