New York’s New Tuition Free Program and What it Means for Social Impact Jobs

College classroom

Student loans are about to become a thing of the past for some undergraduates in New York. This spring, the New York State Legislature included in its budget $87 million for the first year of a new program that offers free tuition at state universities for those who qualify.

The Excelsior Scholarship makes it possible to graduate college without being saddled with student debt. This not only makes college more accessible, but it makes public impact jobs upon graduation more financially feasible.

How do you qualify for free tuition in New York?

The Excelsior Scholarship kicks in for the Fall 2017 semester. The $87 million appropriated is set to help 22,000 students afford college. As long as you meet the below requirements you’ll be able to apply when applications are available this summer.

  • You must be a resident of New York state; meaning you must have lived in the state for at least 12 consecutive months prior to using the scholarship.
  • Your family must make less than $100,000 in 2017. But, in 2018 the income limit goes up to $110,000 and in 2019 it goes up to, and stays at $125,000.
  • You must be working toward either a two-year or four-year degree at a school in the City University of New York or State University of New York system. Students already enrolled or transferring are also eligible.
  • You must register for and complete 30 credits per year.
  • You have to work in New York state upon graduation for the number of years equal to the number of years during which you received the scholarship.

If you don’t meet the requirements outlined above, you can lose the scholarship. And if you decide to leave New York after graduation, you’ll be required to pay back the financial assistance.

The impact that free tuition will have on the nonprofit sector

So, what will it mean to have a new generation of students graduating college without any debt? Elizabeth Searing, a professor at the University of Albany and the acting director of the school’s Institute of Nonprofit Leadership and Community Development, is hopeful that the scholarship program will encourage more students to pursue social impact jobs.

“I do expect to see more individuals heading into public service,” she said. “I think that the concern of debt is a very real one. Having more people be interested in and having financial ability to take nonprofit courses means more and more qualified people working in public service. It means that people who end up being lawyers are going to volunteer for legal organizations and people writing legislation will understand how nonprofits work. It means people will have a better understanding of what it takes to provide human services.”

Searing notes that since the scholarship has yet to launch, there is no data to back this up. But she also points to the many nonprofit fellowships awarded to master’s students as evidence that free or lower-cost tuition is an incentive to pursue post graduate jobs for reasons other than a high salary.

The Institute, which started in 2016, collaborates with the nonprofit sector and encourages students to pursue opportunities in the public interest. Searing said it’s too early to tell how enrollment will be impacted by the scholarship but she is hopeful that giving more students the opportunity to attend college will mean that more students will feel confident to pursue their dreams of careers in social impact.

Free college in other cities and states

New York’s program offering free tuition at a four-year university is the first of its kind. But, other states have already adopted programs to make community college free.

Within the last couple of years Tennessee, Minnesota, Kentucky, and Oregon have all passed laws that provide free tuition at community colleges for qualifying students.

And just a few months before New York’s law was signed, San Francisco became the first city to offer free tuition. Beginning in the fall, those who have lived in the city for at least one year will be eligible to attend the City College of San Francisco at no cost.

In Rhode Island, the governor is pushing to get a law passed during this legislative session that would provide for two years of free tuition, regardless of income, either at a community college or university.

I’m ready to enroll!

Are you planning on applying to the Excelsior Scholarship this year? Or taking advantage of free tuition in other states? Share your story in the comments below.

Interested in learning about other resources to help you fund your degree. Check out “4 Ways To Find Funding For Your Career Change,” and “Your Quick Guide To Paying For Graduate School,” right here on Idealist Careers.


Samantha Fredrickson HeadshotAbout the author: Samantha Fredrickson has spent the last decade working for nonprofit organizations in NY, TX, and NV. She has experience in nearly every niche of nonprofit work and received her journalism degree from the University of Nevada, Reno and her law degree from New York Law School. Follow her on Twitter @sfredrickson.

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Samantha has worked in communications and nonprofit advocacy for more than a decade. She has spent much of her career advocating for the rights of vulnerable populations. She has degrees from the University of Nevada, Reno and New York Law School.
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    • Michael Perigo
    • June 9, 2017

    My concern is the impact this will have on private (nonprofit) colleges and universities. The public schools would have a taxpayer-funded advantage over their nonpublic rivals. Is this not unfair competition? I see lawsuits being filed against States and municipalities that offer these benefits.

    Years ago, public institutions of higher education did very little fundraising, leaving that to the private institutions, because they were tax-payer funded. That was the equalizer. Private institutions charge tuition and fundraise. Public institutions charge tuition and receive public funds. But now public institutions also have robust fundraising programs, so eliminating the tuition seems to me to be anticompetitive and demonstrates a governmental preference.

      • Samantha Fredrickson
      • June 11, 2017

      Thanks for your comment Michael. As mentioned in the article, the NY program will apply to public schools only. However, that does not prevent potential students from applying for other funds to attend private universities if they wish. The more opportunities for helping students avoid debt and attend college, whether it is state funding or private scholarships, the better.

    • sadam
    • June 9, 2017

    Oh it’s huge opportunity but unfortunately I’m far away to NEW YORK, so what should i do?

      • Samantha Fredrickson
      • June 13, 2017

      Do you live in any of the other places that have recently approved tuition free college? Here’s a resource that lists all the states that have adopted (or are considering adopting) tuition free college I’d also suggest contacting your local legislature or governor to see if there is a way to bring this to your state. And if not, there are lots of scholarships options out there! Check with your local college campuses to see what type of scholarships they offer. Good luck!

        • Mike P
        • June 14, 2017

        It’s not free. Taxpayers are footing the bill. Education is not the sole job of government. This puts private colleges and universities at a financial disadvantage and could result in some of them closing. Govt does NOT have a duty to do that. The jobs impact will be lawyers, and increased state tax bureaucracy jobs.

  1. Students in Tulsa County, Oklahoma have a free tuition opportunity, Tulsa Achieves is a funding program that provides up to 100 percent of tuition and fees to Tulsa County high school graduating seniors who enroll at Tulsa Community College the fall after they graduate. The program pays for up to 63 college credit hours or up to three years of college, whichever comes first. For more information, go to their website

    • D Will
    • June 15, 2017

    My gut tells me this is one of those noble political causes aimed to win votes, but fraught with numerous unintended negative consequences — not the least being selection priorities, sliding scales, monitoring, policing, overcrowding, impact on those footing the costs, impact on non-state colleges, future job selection, future location, control, reimbursement …. and on and on.

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