State legislation co-sponsored by Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, would provide free college tuition for in-state students at SUNY schools in exchange for community service.
The initiative, called Tuition-Free NY, would allow students to receive a two- or four-year degree for free if they complete 250 hours of community service a year and pledge to stay in New York for five years after graduation.
“Our SUNY system has been held on a pedestal for making college affordable and accessible for students, and that is the mission,” Santabarbara said during a news conference Friday at Schenectady County Community College. “But we are sort of losing that mission.”
The bill, which is also co-sponsored by Assembly members Phil Steck, D-Colonie, and Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, would send students to a State University of New York, City University of New York or community college at no cost.
Santabarbara said the goal is to make college more affordable and to keep students in New York after graduation. He projected the bill would generate $3 billion every year in community service.
“We want to make college more affordable and we want to put that community aspect back in,” he said. “In doing so, this would be an investment for our economic growth. This bill would also stop the drain and keep our young students here to start a family in New York and continue to help this state grow.”
Santabarbara is looking to have the bill passed in the state Legislature by April of next year. The legislation already has a Senate sponsor, Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island. Santabarbara said the program would cost 1 percent of the $140 billion state budget.
SUNY officials did not return a call for comment.
The bill also works to encourage students to pursue a degree in science, technology, engineering or math by lowering the required community service for students in those fields from 250 hours a year to 150 hours a year.
Santabarbara said he anticipates the legislation, if passed, would boost enrollment at schools and provide businesses with a larger pool of skilled applicants.
The proposal to provide free tuition for New York students comes as the cost of attending college has continued to increase over the past 20 years, with 60 percent of students who graduate having an average debt of more than $25,000.
“I went to a SUNY school, which is supposed to be affordable, but I still have loans and I will probably graduate with average if not more loans,” said Jamie Zieno, a student at the University at Albany, who spoke at the news conference. “This is a bill that we need to pass and support this initiative.”