Few New York City students benefit from free college tuition, report finds

New York City students largely aren’t benefiting from the state’s program promising free college tuition, according to numbers released Friday by a nonpartisan policy think tank.

At Hostos Community College in the Bronx, just 34 students qualified for the Excelsior scholarship — 0.5 percent of the college’s enrollment. The numbers were similarly tiny at other New York City campuses, like Guttman Community College, where 36 students received aid, and Bronx Community College, where 61 students did.

All told, 21 percent of Excelsior recipients attend City University of New York schools, even though those students make up 38 percent of undergraduate enrollment statewide. Across the city, 4,000 students received the award.

“A lot of students are being excluded,” said Tom Hilliard, a researcher who authored the report for the Center for an Urban Future, which draws on state data obtained through a public information request. “Are we really meeting the state’s larger goals of helping all students afford college so they can get a degree?”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the scholarship program in January 2017, calling it a first-in-the-nation plan to make college more affordable. But experts had long warned that the scholarship’s strict requirements — especially the rule that students earn 30 credits a year — would exclude many students juggling additional responsibilities while attending school. Sixty percent of CUNY students report a household income under $30,000.

There are other reasons why New York City students may have been shut out of Excelsior, and the small numbers don’t necessarily mean students aren’t receiving tuition help. Since the scholarship is only a “last dollar” program — meaning it fills the tuition gap not covered by other scholarships — city students may be qualifying for other types of aid to pay for their classes.

The governor’s office noted that 53 percent of the state’s full-time students already attend college tuition-free, thanks to other aid programs. At CUNY, that figure is 56 percent for full-time students. The state also took issue with some of the report’s figures, and said that many students who qualified for Excelsior were rejected because their bills were already covered.

“We are proud that, with Excelsior, thousands more are attending college for free this year,” spokesman Don Kaplan wrote in an email. “New York is expanding college access and making it affordable and the Center for an Urban Future shouldn’t stand in the way of that progress.”

Hilliard said the state should consider easing Excelsior’s credit requirement, or focus on helping students pay for other kinds of college costs, such as books and transportation, to help more students earn a degree.

“We have a lot of students who aren’t graduating, or are not graduating on time, and affordability is a big part of that,” he said.