New York and San Francisco are Two of the Most Expensive Places in America, but Offer Free College Tuition

College is, perhaps, the most expensive thing the average United States citizen is likely to spend money on in their entire life. With tuition rising every year, many students and their families can't afford school without taking on some serious loans. Even if families might be able to cover part or all of the tuition itself, extra costs such as housing, books, food, and transportation may be out of reach – let alone any spending money! College students increasingly take out bigger and bigger loans that will then follow them through their life, hampering their earning potential and their ability to buy a house, or their desire to get married or have children. Currently, about $1.31 trillion dollars in student loan debt haunts graduates in the United States as of the end of 2016, with about $31 billion of that having been added in 2016 alone.

Now, two of the most expensive states in the country are trying to solve this problem. Programs offered by the states of California and New York are providing residents the ability to earn four-year degrees completely tuition-free. Tennessee, Oregon, Kentucky, and Minnesota offered two-year degrees free for residents already, but two-year degrees are typically considered less valuable by employers than the more traditional four-year bachelor's degrees.

New York

In April of 2017, New York became the first state in the country to offer four-year degrees through the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY) public college systems. The program will take three years to fully phase in, but by 2019 the tuition-free offer will cover about 80 percent of New York's entire resident population.

The program is called the Excelsior Scholarship, and it does come with some restrictions. For a student to be eligible, the family must make under $125,000 per year. Students receiving the scholarship must maintain a passing grade point average and be enrolled full time while they receive the scholarship; it does not cover part-time students. After graduating, recipients of the Excelsior Scholarship must agree to work in New York State for the duration of time they were in college; typically, this will mean four years. The program benefits the state because it encourages residents to go to college in-state and requires them to work in New York after graduating, boosting the economy. There is no upper age limit for recipients of the scholarship, so adults who were not able to afford college on their own can now take advantage of its offerings, provided they are able to enroll full-time.

Pre-Excelsior Scholarship, New York residents paid $6,740 per year to attend schools in the SUNY and CUNY systems. Tuition will likely rise for non-residents by about $200 per year to compensate for the loss of tuition revenue from scholarship recipients. As college expenses go, a $200 tuition raise is largely insignificant.


Following on the heels of New York, the city of San Francisco was the first individual city in the country to make tuition free for its residents. Paid for by a transfer tax fund derived from houses with sale prices of over $5 million, the city is able to fully cover tuition for all residents wanting to attend the City College of San Francisco. In addition to tuition coverage, low-income, full-time students attending the City College of San Francisco can receive a stipend of $250 per semester.

Unlike the 80% of state residents that New York's Excelsior Scholarship will cover, San Francisco's bill applies only to city residents who have lived in the city for at least a year and are want to pursue higher education at the City College of San Francisco. One of the most expensive cities in the country, it takes a six-figure income to live relatively comfortable within the city, so many California residents would be unable to take advantage of this perk, even if they wanted to. Despite this, it's still a step forward and perhaps provides a blueprint for other cities looking to implement something similar.

Overall, there have been small, nation-wide pushes for free college tuition. A bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash) would work similarly to the Excelsior Scholarship but on a nationwide level.

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