NY: Cuomo Announces $125 million Student Debt Relief Program

CUNY Comeback Program, a sweeping plan to eliminate up to $125 million in unpaid debt for at least 50,000 students who attended
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Photo: CUNY

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced the CUNY Comeback Program, a sweeping plan to eliminate up to $125 million in unpaid debt for at least 50,000 students who attended CUNY and suffered financial hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The initiative is one of the nation's largest student debt forgiveness plan of its kind. Additionally, students who did not accrue unpaid tuition and fee balances during the period but experienced financial hardship stemming from the pandemic will receive relief in the form of enhanced Student Emergency Grants. The CUNY Comeback Program will be funded through federal stimulus assistance allocated to CUNY.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has caused hardships in the lives of so many New Yorkers, and our students were among those most impacted," Governor Cuomo said. "This landmark new program eliminates millions of dollars in unpaid debt, providing much-needed relief to tens of thousands of CUNY students as they work to get back on their feet after the pandemic and plan for their futures."

Many CUNY students come from communities that were the hardest hit by the pandemic and its resultant economic fallout. During the pandemic, students' debt to CUNY nearly doubled. The objective of the CUNY Comeback Program is to remove financial barriers to access the education New Yorkers of limited means need to move up the economic ladder.

"CUNY students showed their great resilience in the face of the immeasurable hardships they faced over the past 16 months, from employment and income loss to food and housing insecurity, amid an unprecedented health crisis that brought sickness and tragedy to thousands of New York families," said CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez. "This compassionate action will allow CUNY students and recent graduates to move ahead in pursuit of their educational and career objectives without the specter of unpaid tuition and fees. This landmark measure will also enhance CUNY's important contributions to New York's economic recovery."

At its meeting on July 6, the CUNY Board of Trustees approved the use of $125 million in federal stimulus funds for student support and retention, including this student debt relief initiative. While final numbers are unknown until student eligibility and hardship applications have been fully assessed, the University estimates that at least 50,000 students will receive a pandemic debt-relief benefit. The average debt balance is about $2,000. As of August 2020, more than two-thirds of undergraduate students, or 69.2 percent, attend tuition-free. Three in four undergraduate students graduated debt-free.

Eligible students who were enrolled at the University from March 13, 2020, the date the coronavirus was declared a national emergency, through the Spring 2021 semester and accrued tuition and fee balances during that time, will have those unpaid debts to the University wiped clean. This action covers the Spring, Summer and Fall 2020 semesters and the Spring 2021 semester, including students who have graduated. It is a one-time action to aid students who faced and overcame numerous difficulties during the public health and economic crises. In most cases, outstanding student balances will be cleared without an application process, allowing students to register for Fall semester classes and obtain their official transcripts.

The program will be funded through federal stimulus assistance allocated to CUNY through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act in December 2020 and President Biden's American Rescue Plan Act, which was passed by Congress in March.

Eligibility Criteria

Tens of thousands of students who meet the below criteria will automatically have their eligible tuition and fees forgiven in August 2021. These are the criteria to be applied:

(1) Students determined to have hardship, using criteria similar to what CUNY employed to allocate federal Student Emergency Grants in Spring 2020 and Spring 2021. This includes any student who was eligible for Pell Grants, based on their Expected Family Contribution as provided after completing the FAFSA, even if the student did not receive Pell. This may also include students who are eligible for the New York State Tuition Assistance Program but did not meet eligibility requirements for the maximum award.

(2) Students who graduated from CUNY since the national emergency was declared on March 13, 2020 and owe any outstanding balance from Spring 2020 through Spring 2021.

(3) Students who have an outstanding balance of $100 or less per semester, for any of the Spring 2020, Summer 2020, Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters.

Thousands of other students who accrued debt during the aforementioned semesters, but were not eligible for financial aid, may have their unpaid debt forgiven by applying based on financial hardship. CUNY campus financial aid offices will review those requests to determine eligibility. Hardships may include the need to pay medical expenses not covered by insurance; unusually high childcare costs; being homeless or a dislocated worker; recent unemployment of a family member on whom they depend for support; food or housing insecurity; or other changes in the family's income or assets that rendered them unable to pay off their liability to CUNY.

In order to assist students who paid all or some of their tuition and fee charges out of pocket between the Spring 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters and do not owe any amount to CUNY for that period, all such students who are eligible for federal Student Emergency Grants may receive an additional $200, on top of any other Student Emergency Grant allocation that the student will be entitled to in Fall 2021.Those students may also be eligible for aid from the Chancellor's Emergency Relief Fund and campus-based aid programs.

The City University of New York is the nation's largest urban public university, a transformative engine of social mobility that is a critical component of the lifeblood of New York City. Founded in 1847 as the nation's first free public institution of higher education, CUNY today has seven community colleges, 11 senior colleges and seven graduate or professional institutions spread across New York City's five boroughs, serving 500,000 students of all ages and awarding 55,000 degrees each year. CUNY's mix of quality and affordability propels almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as all the Ivy League colleges combined.

More than 80 percent of the University's graduates stay in New York, contributing to all aspects of the city's economic, civic and cultural life and diversifying the city's workforce in every sector. CUNY's graduates and faculty have received many prestigious honors, including 13 Nobel Prizes and 26 MacArthur "Genius" Grants. The University's historic mission continues to this day: provide a first-rate public education to all students, regardless of means or background.

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