what's the catch?

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

PHOTO: Governor Andrew Cuomo Flickr

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.”

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.”