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How will $4B state deficit impact free tuition program for college students?

WBFO's Mike Desmond

A lot of New York residents want to take advantage of the Excelsior scholarship for public colleges and universities in the state. However, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo talking about a $4 billion budget deficit, there might be a fight over money for the next three years.

"Remember, we made the commitment in year one and, you quickly times that by four, then you suddenly have a four-year commitment."

That is state Assemblymember Sean Ryan, talking about the way the costs will rise. As a Fredonia State graduate, the Buffalo Democrat knows the value of public higher education. He says Excelsior is popular with parents.

"They are really happy that they are able to pay for it through the Excelsior Program," Ryan says. "Then we are getting reaction from parents who are just over the threshold amount, saying, 'What about me? Can I get in?' So I think we are going to look at both of those aspects of: How are they going to keep it funded, but also the requirements for admittance into the program to make sure we're not excluding parents just because they are a few dollars over the limit."

This year, there are 22,000 SUNY and CUNY students receiving the free tuition - not everyone who applied. It is going to cost $87 million this year, rising to an estimated $163 million by the third year - significant dollars in Albany terms.

Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes has two degrees from Buffalo State College. Peoples-Stokes says people understand a college education and degree are increasingly important.

"Folks also are kind of understanding now that today's employment market calls for some knowledge," she says. "You need some knowledge, some technological knowledge. You need some knowledge. And so, I think people are excited about the opportunity they can go to college without paying tuition. Now, mind you, they do understand that if your kid stays in the dorm, you are going to have to pay the dorm fee."

Lots of out-of-town kids are at Buffalo State on Excelsior while paying dorm fees, potentially lowering college loans substantially. Peoples-Stokes says those loans can take time to pay off, with her daughter still paying her loans while having a son in college.

"If you can get people out of paying student loans or at least to minimize the amount that they pay, then the quicker they can buy a house, buy a car and or live a good quality of life," she says.

Both Peoples-Stokes and Ryan say the state's fiscal problems cannot be a reason for not continuing Excelsior through graduation.

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