Editorial: Free tuition should be welcome news for New Yorkers

Gov. Andrew Cuomo should be applauded for his newly announced pledge that tuition costs at state colleges will be covered for New Yorkers whose annual household income is $125,000 or less.

The initiative — the latest in a series of progressive programs the governor has introduced in his second term — should help thousands of people save tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

Much like his introduction of paid family leave, which takes effect next year, the free-tuition plan will improve the quality of life for many residents. Similar to his championing of a higher minimum wage, this proposal also protects the interests of the state’s workforce, enabling future college graduates to begin their careers with fewer financial encumbrances.

“The debt is so high it’s like starting a race with an anchor tied to your leg,” Mr. Cuomo said of the student loans most college graduates face — a figure that totals more than $1 trillion nationally.

The governor’s office has estimated that state university students eligible for free tuition could could each save up to $30,000 overall and that the program could cover as many as 200,000 students through 2019 while increasing state college enrollment by more than 40,000. So not only would many New Yorkers enter the workforce debt free, but more recent high school graduates than before would have the means to pursue a college education.

Although Mr. Cuomo’s cost estimate of $160 million annually seems low, we’re optimistic that New York legislators can get behind the spirit of his plan and bring forward a program that educates more New Yorkers without overburdening taxpayers. The importance of a college education has been long established and it’s time the public acknowledges that it’s as essential as the primary and secondary education guaranteed to all of us.

Mr. Cuomo’s initiative — no doubt inspired by young voters’ emotional reaction to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential run, along with his own rumored ambitions beyond the Empire State — offers a stark political contrast to the pro-corporate agenda of President-elect Donald Trump. Including four-year state schools makes the governor’s approach even more progressive than the free community college program President Barack Obama promoted in his final State of the Union address.

With pro-workforce initiatives seemingly stalled at the federal level, it’s refreshing to see that Mr. Cuomo — any future political ambitions notwithstanding — values the important roles played by New York State’s working- and middle-class residents.