College path

Cuomo’s college tuition plan would be a boon for many students, but does it go far enough?

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

When Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an ambitious plan to provide free tuition at state colleges, it was hailed as a milestone. If passed by the legislature, it would relieve thousands of families of a huge burden by offering free two- and four-year tuition to those earning less than $125,000 per year.

But in the days since it was announced, observers have taken a closer look at the plan’s fine print, and some say that despite its sweeping scope, it doesn’t do enough for many needy students.

The governor’s office has released few details about the plan, but so far it is clear that part-time students would not qualify, even though they comprise roughly a third of the student body at CUNY and SUNY colleges. Neither would undocumented students, since they are currently ineligible for state financial aid. And the plan, as proposed, would “cover the remaining tuition costs” for students already receiving federal and state grants, but does not mention providing funds for additional expenses such as room and board.

“I think we just have to be clear about who’s going to benefit and how much they’re going to benefit,” said Raymond Domanico, director of education research at the city’s Independent Budget Office. “It’s not low-income. It’s the less poor and the working class.”

Some of the plan’s supporters have wondered why the price tag for the governor’s plan seemed relatively low — an estimated $163 million per year. In part, that’s because part-time students are excluded, significantly limiting the population Cuomo’s plan serves. CUNY had more than 80,000 undergraduate students attending its colleges part-time in the fall of 2015.

Cuomo’s office said the decision to exclude part-time students was meant to encourage students to go to school full-time, since full-time students are more likely to graduate. Less than 40 percent of students attending four-year public universities and roughly 8.5 percent of those attending two-year colleges in New York graduated on time in 2013, according to a state press release.

Research shows the educational plans of part-time students are more easily derailed, and being fully invested in campus activities, such as clubs and support groups, help students stay in school, said Ann Marcus, a professor of higher education at the Steinhardt Institute at NYU.

Yet, part-time students often need to hold jobs either to support themselves or their families, Marcus said. “Most people who are part-time students, they are all people who feel like they either can’t or don’t want to give up their job.”

Cuomo’s current cost estimates also do not include funding for undocumented students, a spokesperson from the governor’s office confirmed. SUNY does not keep track of how many undocumented students are enrolled statewide, a spokesperson said. But there are approximately 3,800 full-time undocumented students attending CUNY schools.

State Democrats and Republicans have clashed for years over state’s DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented New York state students to receive state aid. Though undocumented students are not included in the current proposal, Cuomo pledged to keep pushing for the DREAM Act this year.

“We support the DREAM Act and will work to ensure both proposals are passed,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer.

Meanwhile, critics say, there’s another population the program does little to serve: the state’s neediest students. While their tuition may already be entirely covered by federal Pell grants and state aid, Cuomo’s proposal does nothing to help them with additional expenses, such as rent and food, argued Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

Ruth Genn, executive director of the New York office of Bottom Line, which helps low-income students navigate the college process, knows that firsthand. Though her organization is excited about Cuomo’s proposal, she says it’s not a panacea.

“[Tuition] doesn’t cover all the other things that our students are facing,” she said. Students are “taking out loans to cover those expenses.”

EXCELSIOR

22,000 New Yorkers will get new college scholarship from the state after 94,000 applied

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

After a long wait, the official tally of New York’s new free-college recipients is here.

Nearly 22,000 New York state students qualified for the first round of the state’s new “Excelsior Scholarship,” which provides free tuition at CUNY and SUNY schools, state officials announced Sunday. Another 23,000 students who applied for the scholarship will receive free tuition through existing state and federal financial aid, which they may not have sought out were it not for the Excelsior application process.

The numbers are good news for students who will receive more tuition assistance. However, the number of recipients is a fraction of the approximately 94,000 students who applied, highlighting a persistent criticism that the scholarship’s reach may not live up to its hype.

“A college degree now is what a high school diploma was 30 years ago – it is essential to succeed in today’s economy,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo in a statement. “Our first-in-the-nation Excelsior Scholarship is designed so more New Yorkers go to college tuition-free and receive the education they deserve to reach their full potential.”

With the Excelsior Scholarship, New York became the first state in the country to cover tuition costs at both two and four-year institutions, putting it at the center of a national conversation about college affordability. The rollout had all the trappings of a major announcement: Cuomo unveiled the program standing next to free-college champion Senator Bernie Sanders and signed it sitting next to former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

But behind the hype, the state expected many applicants would not qualify because scholarship recipients are required to graduate in four years, with little wiggle room to fall behind, and must maintain decent grades. Students are also required to live and work in New York state after graduation for the same number of years they received the award.

The scholarship has also been criticized for catering mainly to middle-class families. Because it is a last-dollar program, students must first use existing state or federal aid, then Excelsior will make up any additional gaps in tuition funding. Many low-income students already qualify for free tuition through state and federal aid, leaving higher-income students mostly likely to benefit from the state program. (This year, students whose families make less than $100,000 per year can qualify and that number will increase to $125,000 by 2019.)

The state is already hailing the program as a success, saying that with the addition of the scholarship, 53 percent of full-time CUNY and SUNY students — or about 210,000 New Yorkers — can now attend college tuition-free. There are also more than 6,000 applications pending final approval, which means the total number of applicants is likely to rise.

The new scholarship drew wide interest from families and students. The state extended the application deadline because of a surge in applicants, which jumped from 75,000 in midsummer to 94,000 by the final deadline.

Students who did not receive the scholarship will see a $200 tuition hike this year, bringing the total cost to $6,670 per year for in-state students.

rules and regs

Among NY students seeking new Excelsior scholarship, potentially many who aren’t qualified or could pay a price later

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

New York state projected that 23,000 students could receive the state’s new Excelsior scholarship, reducing their in-state tuition to zero.

The number of students who applied, according to numbers released last month? 75,000.

The wide gulf raises questions about whether New York adequately informed students about the scholarship’s detailed requirements — and whether some students might wind up losing their scholarships or having them turn into loans as a result.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the program with great fanfare in January. But when the bill was signed, the fine print became clear: Students are required to attend school full-time to keep their scholarships, and stay in New York after graduating for the same number of years as they received them, or reimburse the state for their schooling.

Sabrina Green, a junior at Hunter College, heard about the scholarship at school and read about it in newspapers. She was excited, she said, and confident she would qualify based on her family’s income — but her application was rejected.

“I had no idea that the number of credits from my previous semesters would affect my chances of recieving the scholarship,” she said in an email. “I don’t think I was adequately informed about the qualifications.”

At Borough of Manhattan Community College, nearly a thousand students applied for the scholarship, according to the director of financial aid Ralph Buxton, even though the vast majority of students do not graduate on time or already get enough state and federal financial aid to cover tuition.

“We may start out with a couple hundred this semester and lose them second semester,” Buxton said. “I would say that everybody that’s applying has no firm idea about what the performance requirements are and will not be able to meet them.”

As the scholarship gets off the ground, state officials must decide how much to build the buzz, and how much to emphasize the rules.

An advertisement for the Excelsior Scholarship at a subway stop.

So far, the state has worked to advertise free tuition — but the requirements are not always front and center. Subway ads advertise “Making college tuition free” with little detail. On the state’s website, the requirement to stay in-state after graduation or have the scholarship converted to a loan is not mentioned until the last section on the “Frequently Asked Questions” page.

At the same time, a letter sent to every junior and senior who took the SAT and PSAT clearly states the residency requirement to live and work in New York state after graduation. And the state is holding workshops with guidance counselors and asking students to sign a contract that outlines each requirement before accepting the scholarship.

“There’s no intentionality in not leading with the requirements. What there is is the big point — you can go to college tuition-free,” said a Cuomo administration official. “Like anything else, there are requirements. We’re not hiding or shying away from any of this.”

Getting the balance right is important. For students like the ones at BMCC, the main cost of not getting, or even losing, the scholarship might be a blow to their resolve or ability to get through college.

But other students who are seduced by the free-college advertising could wind up making a deal that could later put them deep into debt.

“Fine print on a scholarship is kind of scary,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, an expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University.

She points to Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, or TEACH, a federal grant program aimed at encouraging aspiring teachers to enter high-needs subject areas and schools. But, like Excelsior, it places restrictions on the jobs that prospective teachers can take once they leave school — and making other choices leads to sudden-onset student loans.

About a third of TEACH grant recipients have had their grants converted to loans, according to a 2015 Government Accountability Office report. Sometimes, the report found, the loss stemmed from a misunderstanding of the grant terms.

Understanding the fine print of college scholarship programs is a problem nationwide, said Martha Kanter, executive director of the College Promise Campaign.

“Part of the challenge of a college promise — any college promise — is understanding who’s eligible, what are the persistence requirements, what are the consequences if you don’t persist,” Kanter said. “Understanding all of that when you’re 18 years old is a huge leap.”