Lawmakers in the state of New York have approved a plan to provide free tuition for lower- and middle-class students attending the City University of New York (CUNY) and the State University of New York (SUNY).
The new initiative, called the Excelsior Scholarship Program, comes as part of the 2018 New York State Budget, which was approved Sunday.
Starting in the fall of 2017, students from households making less than $100,000 will be eligible for the free tuition, with the annual household income threshold increasing to $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 in 2019.
As part of the program, eligible students are required to take 30 academic credits per year and to live in, or work in, the state following graduation for as many years as they received the aid, which is available for up to five years.
SUNY Chairman H. Carl McCall and Chancellor Nancy Zimpher praised the plan, calling it "truly groundbreaking."
"With investment to bring a SUNY education within reach for all New Yorkers, this year's budget is affirmation from the State that our colleges and universities offer a top-quality higher education that prepares students for career success and is among the most affordable in the world," they said in a statement.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo estimates that some 942,000 students will be eligible for the program, or around 75 percent of the college-age students in the state.
"With this budget, New York has the nation's first accessible college program. It's a different model," Cuomo said on his website.
"There is no child who will go to sleep tonight and say, 'I have great dreams, but I don't believe I'll be able to get a college education because my parents can't afford it.' With this program, every child will have the opportunity that education provides."
Watch: New York set to offer students free college tuition
Critics of the program point out that low-income students are likely to benefit from it the least. The scholarship does not remove tuition, but covers the difference between tuition and existing aid. As a result, many low-income students will still need loans to cover expenses such as room and board, textbooks and school fees, which can cost thousands per year.
The state budget includes an $8 million provision to provide open educational resources, including e-books, to students at SUNY and CUNY colleges to help defray the cost of textbooks.
SUNY is composed of some 64 college and university campuses located throughout New York state and has an in-state tuition of $6,470 per year. While CUNY, which operates some 11 colleges and seven community colleges, costs $6,330 a year.