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.”
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.”