The Christian Science Monitor

How free is ‘free college’?

Tufayel Ahmed is leading an ordinary college life with an extraordinary price tag for tuition: $0.


The first in his Bengali-immigrant family to attend college, he’s the beneficiary of a statewide program that will cover four years of tuition so he can earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science at the public City College of New York (CCNY), an oasis in Upper Manhattan where the quad’s chunky neo-Gothic buildings remind him of castles.

The lean freshman with a thick wave of black hair atop his forehead lives at home in Queens, and he doesn’t anticipate needing any loans. “That was actually one of my goals, to make sure that I’m able to finish college without having to have a huge debt on my shoulder,” Mr. Ahmed says.

His father’s income from working at a hotel disqualifies him for federal Pell grants and the state’s tuition assistance program for low-income students. But in 2017, New York state rolled out its Excelsior Scholarship with families like Mr. Ahmed’s in mind. It expands help from the state to much of the middle class, covering public tuition not already paid for by other grants for students with a household income under $125,000. Recipients need to be state residents for a year before college, enroll as full-time undergraduates, and stay on track to finish on time. 

The offer is a bold step that people often refer to with an even bolder shorthand: “free college.”

Free college isn’t as simple as the hyperbolic label makes it sound. Living expenses – on or off campus – and other non-tuition costs are often higher than public tuition, and aren’t covered by most programs. But the catchy phrase represents a growing sentiment that cost has put college

Politically popular Trial and error in executionOne example: stymied by creditsA carrot or a stick?Free vs. debt-free

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