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.

access to what

This new report underscores a big challenge facing New York City’s college graduation aspirations

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A joint Medgar Evers-Boys and Girls choir performed at a graduation.

Thousands of New York City students who enrolled in college as the high school graduation rate skyrocketed appear to have ended up in debt and out of the workforce — and without degrees.

That’s according to a new analysis by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, the New York University institute charged with studying city schools data. The findings, based on students who entered high school during the Bloomberg administration, raise questions about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s approach to getting more students to college.

About 55 percent of students who entered high school in 2003 enrolled in college after graduation, the researchers found. For students who started ninth grade in 2008, that figure was 61 percent.

But the gains in college attendance eroded because many of the 2008 ninth-graders who previously might not have gone to college ended up dropping out.

Exactly why is impossible to tell from the data, the researchers say. But it reflects a national trend in which college costs, poor academic preparation, and general life challenges make it harder for low-income students to persist in college.

PHOTO: Research Alliance for New York City Schools

Whatever the explanation, the trend cuts against New York City’s heralded narrowing of racial achievement gaps. In fact, the researchers found, because black and Latino students dropped out without degrees more often than white and Asian students, racial achievement gaps actually widened slightly after students left high school.

From the study:

Broad improvements in college access have not necessarily produced more equitable outcomes for historically underrepresented groups as they have moved into and through the first years of college. Although we have seen gains in high school graduation and enrollment among all students, regardless of background, more advantaged students have been able to maintain these gains as they have transitioned into college in ways that underrepresented students have not. Figuring out how to promote more equitable outcomes is a central challenge facing the City’s policymakers and educators.

So far, the de Blasio administration has thrown its weight behind making it easier for students to get into college, even as the mayor has acknowledged that access and success are not the same thing and moved to add more challenging courses at city high schools.

The city aims to have two thirds of graduates “college ready” by a decade from now. For now, de Blasio’s College Access for All program ensures that middle school students visit colleges and high school students create a “college and career plan,” often with the help of dedicated counselors. The administration also negotiated fee waivers for students applying to CUNY schools, the most common destination for city graduates, and began offering the SAT exam during the school day, eliminating two barriers to entry.

“For a long time, a lot of kids were told they don’t have a chance to go to college, and that was so often wrong,” de Blasio told SAT-taking students this spring. “We’re sending the opposite message now: Anyone who wants to go to college has a chance to make it.”

On Tuesday, the city announced that nearly 30,000 more students had secured fee waivers when applying to CUNY — saving families more than $2.5 million in application fees.

“As the first person in my family to attend college, I understand how important it is to remove barriers,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who has frequently referenced her own shaky path to college when discussing the city’s new initiatives, said in a statement. (She has also blamed CUNY schools for letting students founder.)

De Blasio revealed the fee waiver total at the graduation ceremony of the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, where almost all of the graduates received waivers. (There, 84 percent of students who entered ninth grade in 2012 graduated four years later, according to city data. But only 64 percent went to college, and just 28 percent met CUNY’s standards.)

Johanie Hernandez, the school’s principal, praised the College Access for All initiative in a statement, saying, “These investments are about making college visible and real for every student at Bronx LGJ, from the time they join us in sixth grade to their high school graduation.”

one barrier down

City to eliminate high school admissions method that favored families with time and resources

PHOTO: Monica Disare
At 9:30 in the morning, the line to get into the citywide high school fair last September already snaked around the corner.

New York City will eliminate a high school admissions method that puts low-income families at a disadvantage and has proven vulnerable to abuse, the city announced Tuesday as part of its plan to promote diversity in city schools.

“Limited unscreened” high schools don’t have academic requirements, but give preference to students who attend an open house or a high school fair. For students entering high school in 2019, that preference will be abolished. The change will mark a big shift: about a third of the city’s roughly 700 high school programs were “limited unscreened” this school year.

The goal of the “limited unscreened” designation was to give students a leg up in admissions at schools to which they conveyed their interest. But a Chalkbeat investigation this fall revealed it has not worked as planned because some students were more likely to get priority than others.

City figures show that 45 percent of black and Hispanic students who listed limited unscreened schools as their first choice received priority, while 57 percent of the non-black, non-Hispanic students did.

“The kids in a priority group are more advantaged on every single dimension you can think of,” said Jennifer Jennings, an associate professor at NYU who studies the high school admissions process. “Every single marker of advantage gets reproduced through priority admissions.”

There are several reasons students might struggle to get priority status. For one thing, attending open houses can be a burden for families. They often require a hefty time investment and may be far from students’ homes. Some are during the school day, causing parents to miss work. Other families struggle to pay the subway fare.

Figuring out when to attend an open house can also be tricky. A Chalkbeat analysis found that the education department’s calendar is missing several dates. (In Tuesday’s report, the education department said it had plans to improve this.)

As an alternative, the education department allows students to earn the same preference by signing in with a number of schools during a high school fair. But at this year’s fair, many schools seemed unaware of the rules or were simply not following them. And some schools were collecting surveys and other information about students — raising questions about whether they were trying to screen their applicants.

The “limited unscreened” admissions method was created during the Bloomberg era and has expanded exponentially since it started. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of limited unscreened programs nearly doubled. Part of the idea was that small schools with a specific theme, like marine science or culinary arts, should be allowed to give preference to students who are truly interested in that particular topic.

But even Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor under Joel Klein who worked at the education department when the policy was created, said the policy had run its course.

“It only made sense to nurture those schools at the beginning,” Nadelstern said in an earlier interview with Chalkbeat. “We’ve now grown into a different period.”

Schools have already started to migrate away from the limited unscreened admissions method, according to city officials. One quarter of this year’s limited unscreened programs have a new way to admit students for next year, they said.

Many of those schools became educational option or “ed opt” schools, according to Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack. Those schools are designed to enroll students with a mix of ability levels, but they often fall short of that goal. The admissions method that will eventually replace limited unscreened will “vary school-by-school,” Wallack said, but a number will become unscreened or ed-opt.

While eliminating limited unscreened admissions removes a barrier for many students, some question whether it will have a diversifying effect. About one third of high school programs are screened, which means they can admit students based on grades, test scores, interviews or other criteria.

Those schools drain off the top-performing students and also enroll a disproportionately low percentage of black and Hispanic students, who are often clustered at limited unscreened and ed opt schools.

“Embedded in this larger diversity plan is an effort to maintain screened schools, said Matt Gonzales, school diversity project director for New York Appleseed. “To eliminate limited unscreened schools, while maintaining all screened schools, is really disappointing.”

Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy, also thinks the city could go further. It could eliminate District 2 priority, for instance, which gives admissions preference to families who live in a certain geographic area.

In response to those critiques, Wallack said the plan is meant to be “first steps.”

“We are open to taking on additional challenges and issues and we may very well discuss other screened programs,” Wallack said.

In addition to eliminating the limited unscreened admissions method, the city is trying to increase access to screened and specialized high schools and make open houses easier to attend. They are also giving more admissions control to students and families by creating online applications.

Middle schools, meanwhile, will no longer allow schools to see how families rank them, a longtime criticism of the system. That will, in theory, encourage families to rank their actual preferences rather than try to game the system.

But more importantly for Eric Goldberg, a member of the Community Education Council in District 2, it requires schools to reevaluate their admissions rubrics.

“Without this plan,” he said, “the status quo persists.”