New York Is About To Offer Free Tuition For All 4-Year Public Colleges

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In what would be the first such program in the nation, New York will offer free college tuition at four-year universities to low-income students, so long as the state's latest budget proposal is given final approval by lawmakers. The state assembly passed the budget on Saturday, and the state senate is expected to do the same early Monday.

Under the program, students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year will receive free tuition at any public university and community colleges to which they're accepted. Those colleges currently range in cost between $4,350 and $6,470 a year, according to the New York Times, which means a low-income family could save as much as $25,880 under the new proposal. In a tweet, Hillary Clinton praised the proposal as "a great step for progressives."

There are some restrictions, though: To qualify, students would have to reach a minimum threshold for grades and class load in high school, and the proposal wouldn't pay for room and board. In addition, the plan would be phased in over the course of three years, with families that earn more money (up to $125,000 per year) gradually becoming eligible over that time.

Free four-year tuition for low-income students has recently emerged as one of the biggest priorities of the progressive movement, in part thanks to Sen. Bernie Sanders' tireless advocacy for such a program during the 2016 presidential campaign. Currently, no state offers such assistance, and that will change if and when New York's budget is approved.

"[The program] says, what we thought of high school 50 years ago, is the way you should think of college now," said Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who championed the proposal, on Friday. "Why do we have free public high school? Because we made the determination as society that you needed high school. You needed it to succeed, and you needed it as a society. Well, today, college is what high school was."

Although government assistance for low-income people is generally not a Republican policy priority, the plan has been endorsed by state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican. With him and Cuomo both throwing their weight behind the measure, it's expected to pass when the senate votes on it Monday morning.

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If the program passes, it'll be a huge win for Cuomo, who's thought to be considering a 2020 run for the presidency. Since taking office in 2011, the governor has successfully implemented a number of top progressive policies, including raising the minimum wage, enacting stronger gun control laws and legalizing same-sex marriage years before the Supreme Court did the same. However, some on the left have criticized Cuomo for doing some decidedly unprogressive things with regard to the economy, such as cutting taxes for the rich. If New York makes college free for low-income students, Cuomo will have a strong counterargument to those critics.

On a broader level, if this plan passes, progressives will have achieved one of their most significant victories, on both on a substantive and symbolic level, since Donald Trump assumed the presidency in January. This could provide a crucial morale boost to the left, as it would serve as proof that even under Trump, it's possible to affect widespread progressive change.