Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday that the requirement was added to protect the state's investment in a student's education by ensuring they don't take advantage of free tuition and then leave New York.
The tuition initiative, which Cuomo said is a national model, covers state college or university tuition for in-state students from families earning $125,000 or less. Students must remain in New York for as many years as they received the benefit. They must repay the money as a loan if they take a job in another state.
"Why should New Yorkers pay for your college education and then you pick up and you move to California?" Cuomo said during a call with state editorial writers. "The concept of investing in you and your education is that you're going to stay here and be an asset to the state. If you don't want to stay here, then go to California now, let them pay for your college education."
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education at Temple University, said the requirement undercuts the promise of free tuition and could deliver a nasty shock to students who fail to read the fine print, or who take the money believing they will stay in New York, only to find better job opportunities elsewhere.
"It's absolutely bait and switch," she said. "You entice people with something they really, really need and then you penalize them if they can't find a decent job and have to leave."
Republican lawmakers pushed for the requirement during closed-door state budget negotiations.
"We took the governor's original plan and made it better, by requiring students to maintain a certain GPA and to live and work in New York after they graduate," said Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate's Republican leadership.
Students who receive free tuition and then leave the state for an advanced degree won't have to pay the money back assuming they return to New York once they complete their graduate studies. State officials also plan to make accommodations for graduates who leave the state for military service.