No Strings Attached?

Gov. Cuomo is proposing free college tuition, but are his plan’s rules too strict?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

As a freshman at City College last fall, Saad Ahmed stopped by his advisor’s office for what he thought was a routine meeting — until he found out he had lost all his state financial aid for the semester.

He thought it was a mistake, but it wasn’t.

Although he should have received about $2,000 per semester under the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, he unknowingly took a history class he didn’t need to graduate. Since TAP only covers courses applicable to a student’s “program of study,” he was suddenly one credit shy of the required course load.

“It was obviously frustrating because I lost the money, but it wasn’t my fault,” he said.

Ahmed is not alone. TAP has strict requirements about which courses, and how many courses, students must take in order to keep their aid. The “Excelsior Scholarship” — Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new plan to provide free college tuition at state schools to families making less than $125,000 a year — does too. The new scholarship, as it is currently configured, carries over some of TAP’s regulations, and some of its rules would be even more stringent.

The governor’s office, and many supporters, argue that cases like Ahmed’s are rare. Officials said they will try to address any problems with state financial aid, and that Excelsior’s additional regulations are intended to encourage on-time graduation.

But advocates say that argument misses a larger, structural issue with the state’s financial aid system: The more rules there are, the more chances there are for students to get tripped up. That ranges from seemingly innocuous mistakes like forgetting to count college credits obtained in high school, to situations in which students have to drop classes in order to support family members.

“How many 18-years-olds do you know that know exactly what they want to be when they grow up and don’t stumble and fall a little bit?” asked Susan Mead, director of financial aid at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie. “Unless we have a parachute to catch them while they’re having difficulties, they’ll end up going out the exit door.”

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New York offers one of the most generous financial aid programs in the nation, but stringent rules have historically limited the pool of students who can benefit. Under the current TAP rules, students have to maintain 12 credits per semester and those credits must count toward a student’s program of study. Excelsior ups that requirement to an average of 15 credits per semester.

The idea of asking students to take only courses applicable to their study area is designed to discourage students from taking ones won’t help them get a degree. But the requirement is applied unevenly across colleges, said Victoria Hulit, a college success director at Let’s Get Ready, a program that helps low-income students finish college.

“In theory, it sounds great. We want our kids to get degrees. But the way that TAP regulates it, it gets a little bit tricky,” Hulit said. “We didn’t even realize [TAP] was a thing until kids started losing it.”

For instance, Hulit knows one student who decided he wanted to switch majors from forensic science to fire science. He took a semester of fire science courses, but hadn’t technically switched his major in time for those courses to count for TAP. He lost all of his aid for the semester, she said.

Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College, where Cuomo announced his support for a free college tuition proposal, said that some of these problems can be solved by better tracking of credits on the part of students and schools. Sometimes, students say there are no courses available, but either they don’t want to wake up for an 8 a.m. class or the class conflicts with work. (Her students, for instance, sometimes work the night shift at LaGuardia Airport, she said.)

Schools are under pressure to make sure students meet each of the requirements. An auditor from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office confirmed that they frequently audit TAP rules at colleges and prevent schools from providing aid to students not considered full-time.

Hulit estimates she knows about 20 students who have lost TAP funding. Though that is only a small fraction of the students she’s worked with, she says more often counselors caught students right before they made a mistake. In many cases, she said, students simply lost funding because they did not meet TAP’s academic or credit accumulation requirements.

That’s where the Excelsior Scholarship is even more stringent than TAP. The scholarship requires students to average 15 credits per semester and finish in two academic years for an associate’s degree or four years for a bachelor’s.

“The way to make college a greater success — more success and completion — is more full-time faculty, more opportunity for a large number of class sections,” said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, chair of the higher education committee. “That is the way to improve the end result. Not putting a gun to their head.”

There are exceptions, according to officials from the governor’s office. Students could take 12 credits one semester and make up classes the next, but they will still have to average 15 credits per semester in most cases. The state would also make exceptions for extreme circumstances, such as caring for a sick husband or serving in the military, officials from the governor’s office said.

“From a ‘stepping out’ provision permitting students to pause their education to allowing students to take variable credits if necessary, the program includes built-in flexibility and any suggestion otherwise is patently false,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer.

Still, an average student would not get more time, officials said. Their scholarship would not extend beyond two or four years, depending on the type of degree, even though the vast majority of students need extra time.

Only 22 percent of first-time, full-time students pursuing bachelor’s degrees at CUNY graduate in four years, but that number jumps to 54 percent after six years. The numbers are even more striking for students in two-year degree programs. Only three percent of students earn an associate’s degree in two years, but by the four-year mark, about 20 percent have.

This could be particularly difficult for students who have to take remedial classes, which do not count toward a student’s degree. Only about 50 percent of New York City high school graduates have met CUNY’s standards for college-readiness in math and English.

If the governor wants to help more students graduate, he should focus on eliminating some of these restrictions, instead of adding more, said Kevin Stump, the Northeast Regional Director for Young Invincibles, a group that encourages young adult activism on a range of issues, including healthcare and higher education.

“If the governor is serious, and if the state is serious — about college affordability and making college free,” Stump said, “it shouldn’t have all these ridiculous rules.”

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.”

diplomas for all

Education commissioner floats idea of allowing a work readiness credential to confer benefits of a diploma

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

A high school diploma opens doors to matriculating in college, qualifying for certain jobs and entering the military.

But many students struggle with New York state’s arduous requirements, which generally include passing at least four Regents exams. During a discussion Tuesday about creating more diploma options, New York state’s education commissioner floated a radical solution: Allow students to use a work-readiness credential to obtain a “local diploma” instead.

“I think what we need to look at is the opportunity of saying can the CDOS [Career Development and Occupational Studies credential] be, can the completion of the CDOS sequence, be an appropriate end to receiving a local diploma?” Elia said during a Board of Regents conversation about graduation requirements.

The CDOS credential was originally crafted in 2013 as an alternative to a diploma for students with disabilities. They can show they are ready for employment by completing hundreds of hours of vocational coursework and job-shadowing or by passing a work-readiness exam. The rules were changed last year to also allow general education students to obtain the credential, which can substitute for a fifth Regents exam for students who pass four.

Allowing the credential itself to confer the benefits of a diploma would mark a seismic shift in what it means to graduate in New York state. Students would potentially avoid having to pass a series of Regents exams — which would mark a huge victory for advocates who argue those exams unfairly hold students back.

But it would also raise questions about whether standards are being watered down. Chalkbeat has reported that the work-readiness exams used to obtain a CDOS credential often test fairly basic life skills, such as how to overcome obstacles when throwing a company party. The state itself is currently reviewing these exams to see if they have “sufficient rigor.”

The state cautioned that there is no formal proposal on the table. Also, the commissioner’s statement Tuesday morning was vague. If state officials decide to move forward with the proposal, for instance, they would need to decide if it is for all students or only students with disabilities. Officials would also need to clarify whether the work-readiness exam itself was sufficient for a diploma, or whether extra coursework would be tacked on.

“The Board of Regents and the State Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways. This is not about changing our graduation standards. It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “Today, the Board of Regents and the Department started a discussion to examine all of New York’s diploma options and graduation requirements. This discussion will continue over the coming months. It is premature to speculate on any changes that could be made as a result of this process.”

Regardless of any changes, all students would likely be required to complete the same number of high school courses, which includes 22 credits of required work, state officials said.

Still, just having the head of the state’s education department float this concept suggests a dramatic policy reversal. Starting in 2005, the Regents began a process to make it more difficult to earn a diploma in an attempt to prepare more students for college and career. Local diplomas exist today but are only offered in limited cases, for students with disabilities who complete a set of requirements, including the math and English Regents, and for general education students who just miss passing two of their Regents exams.

Recently, state education officials have been looking for ways to help students just shy of the passing mark. In 2014, they created a “4+1” option, which allows students to substitute a final Regents exam for a pathway in areas like the arts or Career and Technical Education, and then last year added CDOS as a potential pathway.

In 2016, another rule change allowed students to appeal Regents exam grades with scores below passing and let students with disabilities graduate after passing two Regents exams and getting a superintendent’s review. Last year, the number of New York City students successfully appealing Regents exam scores in order to graduate tripled, likely contributing to a boost in the city’s graduation rate.

By placing a discussion about diploma options on Tuesday’s agenda, state officials suggested the Regents want to do even more. Allowing students to earn a local diploma without passing any Regents exams would be the biggest change to date.

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, did not comment specifically on this provision and said he generally supports recent changes to graduation requirements. But he said looking forward, it will be important to maintain high standards.

“Ensuring that there’s rigor and that graduates are ready for what comes next is very important,” Sigmund said.

Many education advocates are likely to be supportive by the change. A group of activists rallied at the State Education Department on Monday, carrying signs that said “diplomas for all.”

These and other advocates argue that students across the state — particularly those with disabilities or those who struggle with tests — have had their life options severely limited by the exams.

State Senator Todd Kaminsky, who has been active in fighting for more diploma options, said for him, finding solutions for these students outweighs critics’ concerns about rigor.

“I think this is a major victory for parents who had seen their potential for their children stifled,” Kaminsky said. “I am firmly of the belief that we need to err on the side of giving children options to graduate.”