college culture

New York will make historic investment in free college tuition, part of budget deal reached Friday night

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Cuomo proposes making college tuition-free for New York’s middle-class families.

Students across New York state will soon attend college with the promise of free tuition, as legislators agreed to a first-in-the-nation plan to waive the cost of two- and four-year public colleges and universities for families earning less than $125,000 per year.

The “Excelsior Scholarship,” a hallmark of the $153 billion budget plan finalized Friday night, applies only to SUNY and CUNY schools. Though the plan carries some restrictions that may limit the number of students who qualify, Cuomo hailed the historic nature of the announcement.

“There is no child who will go to sleep tonight and say I have great dreams, but I don’t believe I’ll be able to get a college education because mommy and daddy can’t afford it,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo. “Every child will have the opportunity that education provides.”

(Technically, lawmakers still have to officially approve the budget; voting is expected soon.)

The final plan is similar to Cuomo’s original proposal, but also includes a boost for the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, which can be used at private college as well as public colleges, something the State Senate pushed for.

Access to the Excelsior Scholarship will be widened over time, with a household income limit of $100,000 this year, $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 in 2019. In New York City, the governor’s office estimates, 84 percent of families with college-age students would be financially eligible.

But the scholarship also includes many restrictions. It requires students to average 30 credits per year, for instance, and finish their degrees on time.

A low percentage of CUNY students graduate on time in either associate’s or bachelor’s degree programs, so this rule will likely limit the number of New York City students who will qualify. There is some wiggle room provided in the plan that allows students to pause or restart their scholarships because of “hardship” and make up credits if they fall behind one semester, according to materials sent by the governor’s office.

In addition, students will have to maintain a certain grade point average, which was not in Cuomo’s original proposal. It is unclear at this point what that average will be.

The budget deal also creates an Enhanced Tuition Award with a maximum of $3,000 that requires colleges to match the amount and freeze tuition while students receive the award.

The budget tries to offset the cost of textbooks by providing an $8 million investment in resources like electronic books. Other than that provision, there is no mention in Cuomo’s announcement about support for non-tuition expenses like rent or food. The Assembly’s plan would have allowed students to withhold a third of their Pell grant funds for non-tuition expenses.

The Excelsior Scholarship is a last-dollar program, which means students must use their Pell grants and existing state Tuition Assistance funds to cover tuition first, after which Excelsior kicks in to cover the rest. That means low-income students who already have tuition covered by state and federal aid will see little financial benefit — a criticism lobbed at the plan throughout budget season.

Lower-income students typically have lower college completion rates compared to their higher-income peers. A recent survey showed that many students skip meals to pay for books.

The budget deal increases education aid by $1.1 billion, which includes $700 million in foundation aid and will bring total school aid expenditures to $25.8 billion. A one-year extension of mayoral control of city schools was reportedly left out of the final budget deal, despite earlier reports that it would be included.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated with additional information.

new chapter

Kristina Johnson appointed chancellor of SUNY as state’s controversial free tuition plan kicks in

Kristina Johnson, the newly appointed chancellor of SUNY.

Kristina Johnson was named chancellor of the state’s public college system, SUNY announced Monday, a job that will include shepherding New York’s brand new college affordability plan.

“I’m very excited and grateful to be here and [have] the opportunity to serve a system and a state whose governor has put higher education front and center in his agenda,” Johnson said.

An engineer by training, Johnson is currently CEO of a company that focuses on providing clean energy to communities and businesses and served as under-secretary of energy for President Barack Obama. Previously, she was the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University.

Johnson, who starts in September, will replace Nancy Zimpher, who will step down in June after an eight-year stint at the top of the state university system. Zimpher was known for casting SUNY as an institution driving economic growth, and for trying to elevate the teaching profession through a program called TeachNY.

As chancellor, Johnson will oversee a system that served 1.3 million students in 2015-16. And as colleges across the country grapple with issues raised by student debt, Johnson takes the helm at a significant moment.

The state’s new Excelsior Scholarship will provide free tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools for families earning less than $125,000 per year. Governor Andrew Cuomo has hailed the scholarship as a national milestone in the free college movement. But experts have raised questions about whether the plan’s rules, including strict credit requirements and a requirement to stay in-state after graduation, will limit the number of students who can take advantage of it.

Johnson did not share any of those criticisms when interviewed by the New York Times in an article Monday, calling the scholarship “outrageously ambitious.”

In a statement, Zimpher praised her soon-to-be replacement. “The future of SUNY is indeed bright under the leadership of Dr. Johnson.”

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.”