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Hillary Clinton Applauds New York’s Free College Plan at Signing Ceremony

Hillary Clinton made a surprise appearance at a community college in New York City today to celebrate the signing of New York's new universal college tuition coverage.

The former secretary of state and presidential candidate stood next to Governor Andrew Cuomo at LaGuardia Community College in Queens as he signed ceremonial papers kicking off the groundbreaking new policy, which offers full tuition coverage at two- and four-year colleges for students with family household incomes under $100,000.

Clinton said the nation's first free college tuition plan could be a model for other states and can eventually pave the way for nationwide reforms that were championed by Democrats during the 2016 presidential election.

Image: Hillary Clinton, Cuomo
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, on April 12. Darren McGee / Office of Governor via AP

"Paying for college should not defer or destroy dreams," Clinton said. "I'm hoping too that Congress will come to its senses and will understand we don't need to be building walls, we need to be building bridges. And the best bridge to the future is a good education."

The initiative, called the Excelsior Scholarship, emerged as a key priority for Cuomo this year. Beginning in Fall 2017, tuition will be free for lower-income families. But students still will pay out of pocket for room, board and other expenses — an obstacle for some very poor students that raised criticism from New York State Assemblyman Victor M. Pichardo.

In 2018, the cap will rise to $110,000, and then to $125,000 in 2019.

Recipients also must remain in New York for as many years as they received the benefit and repay the money as a loan if they take a job out of state, the Associated Press reported. There are no age limits; adult students can qualify for the coverage as well as those just graduating high school.

While states like California, Georgia, and Louisiana have comprehensive grant and scholarship programs for four-year college as well, New York's is the nation's only truly universal program — with no requirements other than residency and income, and no caps on the amount of residents who can receive full tuition.

Free coverage of two-year colleges already exists in Tennessee, Oregon, and Minnesota. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about a dozen other states have seen legislation proposed that would do the same.

Clinton, who campaigned on similar proposals for debt-free higher education across the country, hailed New York's plan as a progressive initiative that will attract businesses to the state and convince students to stay. The former U.S. senator from New York also applauded Cuomo, a Democrat who has a longstanding relationship with the Clinton family. Cuomo served as housing secretary in President Bill Clinton's cabinet and is mentioned as a possible contender for the White House in 2020.

Gov. Cuomo and Sen. Sanders Unveil Free College Tuition Plan 1:22

Cuomo said Clinton inspired the scholarship during her presidential campaign with her "outrageously ambitious" and ''irrefutably smart" vision for college affordability.

"It is not a luxury, it is a necessity," Cuomo said. "And if we're not going to have it on the federal level, then we're not going to be denied it in New York."

New York's universal college tuition program was also applauded by Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT, whose presidential campaign platform relied heavily on promises of free college nationwide.

On April 3, just one week before New York's state senate approved the budget for the Excelsior Scholarship, Sanders introduced national legislation called the College for All Act.

"Higher education in America should be a right for all, not a privilege for the few," Sanders said in a statement at the time. "If we are to succeed in a highly competitive global economy and have the best-educated workforce in the world, public colleges and universities must become tuition-free for working families and we must substantially reduce student debt.