If you’ve been considering going back to college to finish your degree, but are worried by the burden of student debt on top of the crazy cost of living in New York City, now is a great time to explore the affordable options offered to New Yorkers by local universities. Check out this guide to the free tuition programs at the City University of New York and State University of New York.

This spring, Governor Cuomo announced the Excelsior scholarship, which effectively makes schools in the CUNY and SUNY systems tuition-free for households earning less than $100,000 a year.

What Makes You Eligible for Free Tuition? Proven Residency

First and foremost, established legal residency in New York for 12 months is a prerequisite for Excelsior eligibility. Any of the following can be used to document your residency:

  • A New York state driver’s license
  • Your name on an NYC utility bill
  • Voter registration at your New York address
  • Otherwise documented residence in New York for 12 continuous months

Yes, this means you’ll probably be summoned for jury duty at some point, but there are some serious cost benefits to establishing that you’re a New Yorker now.

Course Load Requirements: 30 Credits a Year

Thirty units over one year means a full-time course load. This can be spread out over fall, spring and summer terms, but failure to meet this requirement will mean that you are ineligible for the scholarship in the future. You must also maintain good academic standing and be on track to graduate on time. This provision is designed to drive on-time graduations, but could be difficult to meet if you are trying to balance college study with a full-time job or other major responsibilities, like taking care of kid or parent. Before you commit to 30 credits per year, take stock of whether completing them is feasible for you.

Income Requirements for Free Tuition at CUNY and SUNY

Your household income as filed on your tax returns may not exceed $100,000. Under 26? It’s important to be sure that your family no longer claims you as a dependent, which has become an increasingly popular way to maintain affordable health insurance. If you are a dependent, your family would need to be at or below the same income threshold.

>>Download this PDF to learn more about Excelsior Scholarship

Where Can I Go?

You must attend a State University of New York or City University of New York associate’s or bachelor’s program. That’s hardly a limitation. There are 24 CUNY campuses and 10 SUNY campuses within a short commute from the city. Check out Marketing at FIT in Chelsea (SUNY), Accounting at Baruch College in Murray Hill (CUNY) or Computer Science at Borough of Manhattan Community College in Tribeca (CUNY).

Can I Apply for a Graduate Degree?

No. The Excelsior scholarship is for undergraduate study only. That said, in-state tuition at CUNY/SUNY schools is an excellent value if you’re thinking of heading back for a graduate degree. Master’s programs for New York state residents start at $5,225 per semester or $440 per credit.

How Else Can I Take Advantage of This Program?

If you’re thinking about any sort of entry or reentry into academics, take advantage of the abundant free and cheap CUNY resources. I’m partial to the free GRE prep services and sparkling athletic facilities with bargain-basement membership rates myself. if you live in NYC, your taxes are helping to make this system flourish — it’s worth checking out.