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New York Excelsior Scholarship: Last Dollar Program Ignores Real Burdens

As a former History student at Brooklyn College, and longtime free-tuition advocate, Bernie Sanders was the ideal political champion for Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship. At one rally, Sanders expressed, “What Governor Cuomo is proposing is a revolutionary idea for higher education. It’s an idea that is going to reverberate not only throughout the State of New York, but throughout this country.” Unfortunately for Bernie, and most New Yorkers, the Excelsior Scholarship isn’t the revolution New York State public universities really need.

Launched in Spring 2017, the New York State Excelsior Scholarship is the first in the country to provide free tuition to college students. However, when looking critically at the guidelines and state resident demographics, this policy will deliver far short of its political promises and fanfare.

In a press release, New York State Department of Education outlined that more than 940,000 middle-class families and individuals making up to $125,000 per year will qualify to attend college tuition-free at all CUNY and SUNY two- and four-year colleges in New York State. The new program begins this Fall 2017 and will be phased in over three years.

To qualify, students must meet strict residential, financial, and academic eligibility requirements and commit to reside in New York State for the length of time they received the award. Unfortunately, the criteria outlined by Governor Cuomo and the 2017 New York State Legislature is woefully out of touch with the current state of SUNY and CUNY persistence and graduation.

Excelsior scholars must complete 30 credits a year towards their degree program. In comparison, both New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program and Federal Aid require students to take 12 credits each semester, or 24 credits for the year.  It’s a traditional credit requirement across most universities, including our own Columbia University. In Excelsior’s case, students must either load up on courses each semester, or take classes in the summer or winter terms. Excelsior will not fund these extra classes it requires, nor will state and federal grants cover more than two semesters per year. Meanwhile, the cost of a 3- or 4-credit course at a SUNY runs between $800 to $1000.

The award’s strict duration period primarily drives the credit requirement. Students must graduate with their Associate’s degree in two years, and their Bachelor’s degree in four years. While on the surface, that might seem reasonable, New York State graduation rates confirm that the majority of students may risk ineligibility, or worse, retroactive repayment of the award as state in the program’s criteria. On average across the state, 36% of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in SUNY and CUNY graduate within 4 years. For associate’s degrees, 16% of students graduate within 2 years. In fact, many students pursuing associate’s degrees continue beyond 4 years.

These two cases demonstrate the oversight inherent to Excelsior’s basic regulations, and we haven’t even discussed money.

The Scholarship is a “last dollar” program. SUNY resident tuition (currently $6,470 annually) and CUNY resident tuition (currently $6,330 annually) will first be reduced by other student financial aid—NYS Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) award and/or federal Pell grant—before the Excelsior Scholarship may be applied.  The Scholarship will cover any remaining tuition liability up to $5,500; and a tuition credit will cover any remaining tuition expenses not covered by the Excelsior Scholarship.

Excelsior’s funding addresses the high price tag of college, but in ways more limited than Cuomo and Sanders have led the public to believe. Students with the highest financial need are the most likely to attend SUNY and CUNY universities because of their low cost of attendance in comparison to other private and out-of-state public universities. This same population often receives large Pell and TAP grants, and will consequently be ineligible for Excelsior funding. The population of students who come from household incomes between $50,000 and $100,000 would most benefit from Excelsior, if only because their income makes them ineligible for federal and state grants, and their only public financial aid comes through loans.  But, loans will likely still remain in most students’ financial aid packages.

Tuition only makes up a small fraction of a college’s price tag.  The New York State Department of Education estimates SUNY’s total cost of attendance rounds out $25,000 a year of a bachelor’s degree and $13,000 for a commuting associate’s student. New York City’s DOE calculates CUNY’s 4 year cost of attendance at $16,000, and commuting associate’s at $14,000. Looking at these numbers, Excelsior is sure to alleviate the financial burden for students not covered by grant aid, and not attending a four- year university.  But we need to consider the other direct and indirect costs that make up most of the price tag. Even after tuition is covered, undergraduates still need to close the annual gap of $19,000 at SUNY four-years and $9,000 at CUNY four-years.

Looking beyond requirements and money, the Excelsior Scholarship encourages New York residents to study in New York.  It is sure to increase the appeal of the public university for middle income New Yorkers that aren’t eligible for federal and state grants. Already this year, CUNY reported that freshman applications increased 9 percent this year to a record total of 76,000. Administrators attributed the surge to Excelsior. In the five months since the program was rolled out, that seems to be the only statistic in its favor.

In reality, the Excelsior Scholarship benefits middle class families who do not face any obstacles to qualify and keep the funding during their child’s undergraduate career. This policy provides an incentive to keep traditional students in New York State. The governor should be celebrated for motivating students to be educated and employed in their state of residence. It is not, as Governor Cuomo describes, granting “every child the opportunity that education provides.” Nor is it promoting equity and access within New York’s higher education system. Senator Bernie Sanders should recognize the difference.