a helping hand

How adding high school counselors saved Colorado more than $300 million

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Hinkley College Center director Jazmin Lopez speaks with senior Moise Kombo in January.

Money spent to bring in more middle school and high school counselors helped keep almost 1,000 at-risk students in Colorado schools and send more of them to college, a new report shows.

The state-funded Colorado School Counselor Corps grant provided $16 million to 59 schools between 2010 and 2015 in an effort to keep students engaged and chart a course — unfamiliar to many low-income students — toward college and career.

The program appears to be paying off. By one estimate, the state is saving $20 it would otherwise spend on social safety net services for every $1 it spends on school counselors, the report from the Colorado Department of Education found.

Most measures the department looked at trended upward, including daily attendance, enrollment in college courses students can take during high school and the number of students who completed federal financial aid paperwork.

Here are four takeaways from the report:

The grant money allowed schools to lower their student-to-counselor ratio. That allowed counselors to do their jobs more effectively. Before receiving the grant, schools averaged 363 students per school counselor. That’s a ratio well above the suggested 250-to-1. By the end of the fourth year, participating schools had their student-to-counselor ratio down to 216-to-1.

The grant money mostly helped students of color from low-income homes. In the final year of the grant, 71 percent of the students at schools that received grant dollars identified as minorities and 59 percent qualified for either free or reduced-priced lunch at school. In poor communities, preparing for college can often be complicated if no one in the household knows how to navigate the process. That’s where school counselors come in.

Dropout rates rose across the board in the final year of the grant — for reasons that went unexplained. Before the grant money came in, 5.5 percent of the students in grantee schools dropped out. That dropped to 3.5 percent after three years of funding, but climbed to 3.7 percent in the final year of the grant. Statewide, the number increased as well. The report called the drop in graduation rates “concerning,” but didn’t elaborate on potential causes.

By keeping kids from dropping out, the program saved taxpayers more than $319 million. Each child who drops out, according to the report, could cost the state about $321,450 in lost taxes, plus spending on welfare, incarceration and health care, among other things. By keeping 995 students in school, the state dodged a $319 million-plus burden on taxpayers, the report concluded.

critics of cuomo

CUNY students join chorus of protests against Cuomo’s ‘hypocritical’ college tuition plan

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address.

Representatives from the University Student Senate of CUNY — the very demographic who should benefit from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s tuition plan — are joining protests against the “hypocritical” plan Tuesday afternoon, according to a press release from the Alliance for Quality Education.

The protest by AQE, an organization that has long criticized the governor, is the latest in a round of backlash against Cuomo’s free college tuition plan. The New York Times has been highly critical of the plan on its opinion pages. Experts have questioned whether the plan will leave students with surprise loans instead of reducing student debt. One lawmaker has already promised to introduce legislation that would rid the law of one of its most controversial requirements.

Cuomo unveiled the proposal to provide free college tuition in January while standing next to Senator Bernie Sanders, who championed the idea of free college during his run for president. When the dust settled on the budget process earlier this month, the state created the Excelsior Scholarship, which is supposed to provide free college tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools for students from families making less than $125,000 per year.

But it wasn’t long before the details of the plan led to questions — and criticism. As Chalkbeat has reported, the plan will do little to help the lowest-income students, who already receive enough state and federal financial aid to cover the cost of tuition, but often need help paying for things like rent and books.

The plan requires students to take 30 credits per year and graduate on time, even though the majority of SUNY and CUNY students don’t graduate on time. It does not cover part-time students, which make up about a third of the SUNY and CUNY population.

The final straw for many was a requirement that students live and work in-state after graduation for the same number of years as they received the “Excelsior” scholarship. If they do not, the scholarship will turn into student loans, as Chalkbeat pointed out last Monday.

Cuomo has defended himself against these arguments.

“My point is very simple: These are public colleges and they should be open to the public,” Cuomo said. “Ideally they should be free. We can’t get there, but this is a first step.”

what's the catch?

Cuomo’s promise of free college tuition has a major catch, experts say

PHOTO: Governor Andrew Cuomo Flickr
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Friday that lawmakers had come to an agreement on 2017-18 Executive Budget.

On Friday night, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that lawmakers had reached a deal on a new scholarship, hailed as a first-in-the-nation plan to provide free college tuition at state colleges and universities.

The plan promises to cover the cost of college tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools for families making less than $125,000 per year. But it has a major snag that has so far gone under-the-radar, experts say.

Students must live and work in New York after they graduate for the same length of time as they received the scholarship. If they do not, their full scholarship will be turned into student loans, according to the law.

“This is a killer,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “This is something you can’t trust. And you’re bringing back debt, which is the thing that everybody is trying to avoid.”

Officials from the governor’s office said the provision is justified because the scholarship makes a major investment in New York’s youth, so the state should reap the benefits of that investment.

“By ensuring our highly-skilled, highly-qualified students live and work in-state for the number of years they received the Excelsior Scholarship, we are guaranteeing this investment pays dividends right here at home,” said education department spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer.

Experts, however, disagree. The provision, Goldrick-Rab says, which was not in the governor’s original proposal, could force students and families to make tough choices after college — about whether to take the best job they can find, for instance, enter the military or take care of a family member.

She also argues that since it creates an incentive for students to stay in-state while unemployed, it is not good for the state’s economy. More importantly, it could saddle students with debt they didn’t expect, she said.

It is not clear whether this rule will impact the generally warm reception Cuomo’s announcement has received. The governor, who announced the Excelsior Scholarship plan standing beside free-college champion Senator Bernie Sanders, has tried to position New York as a national leader in the free college movement.

But while there are some targeted scholarships that require students to stay in-state after graduation, other states pursuing free college plans have not included such a provision, said Goldrick-Rab.

The Center for an Urban Future released an op-ed soon after the deal was announced, saying the provision may “transform a financial blessing into a burden.” The article points out that the provision calls for students to both live and work in New York, which means that a student living in-state who gets a job just over the border in another state would still be subject to loans.

The SUNY Student Assembly has not taken an official position on the provision, said Arthur Ramsay, director of communications, but he also said that he and other leaders are concerned the provision is “restrictive.”

“We would prefer a program that doesn’t have the strings attached,” Ramsay said.

Some lawmakers who have advocated for free college are now disappointed in the list of requirements that made it into the final law. Assemblyman James Skoufis, who has worked on college affordability for years, sent a release slamming the final product.

“Governor Cuomo’s tuition-free Excelsior Scholarship is more sizzle than substance,” explained Assemblyman Skoufis in the release. Cuomo’s plan “offers a great headline but little else.”