Exit strategy

State pols push for eliminating controversial rule in Cuomo’s tuition plan and expanding help for low-income families

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

More than 30 state Assembly members are pushing the governor to drop a controversial rule in his free college tuition plan — which critics say would exclude a large swath of New York state students — and to provide an additional boost for low-income families.

Governor Andrew Cuomo kicked off this legislative session with an unprecedented proposal to provide free tuition at every New York state public college for families earning less than $125,000 per year. Though many hailed the plan as a game-changer for middle-class families, it quickly garnered criticism for providing little to no extra relief to the state’s neediest families and including a required credit load critics say is too burdensome.

When the dust settles, less than 5 percent of the entire undergraduate population at SUNY and CUNY schools will benefit, according to the Assembly members’ projections.

“Let’s not put forward this smoke and mirrors proposal,” said Assemblymember James Skoufis of Orange and Rockland Counties, who drafted a letter to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie on behalf of himself and his colleagues, as first reported by Gotham Gazette.

In it, the Assembly members propose eliminating the 15-credit requirement, which Skoufis called “punitive” since it could harm students adjusting to college, struggling with a heavy course load, or juggling schoolwork with a job. Instead, the proposal allows students at four-year programs to graduate in five years and students at two-year programs to graduate in three, which averages to 12 credits per semester. (That’s the same credit load students must maintain now to qualify for state financial aid.)

The governor’s office says the requirement is meant to encourage on-time graduation, which has become a real problem in New York state and across the country. It also said students will have the flexibility to take 12 credits one semester and make up the extra class the next.

“Our goal is to provide as many New Yorkers as possible … the opportunity to go to college tuition-free, and that goal is met with the Excelsior Scholarship program,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever.

But at CUNY, the number of graduates pursuing bachelor’s degrees doubles when students are given an extra year. For those pursuing an associate’s degree, that number more than triples.

Another proposal would allow students to use Pell grants to cover non-tuition expenses. While federal and state financial aid already often covers tuition for the neediest students, they may still struggle to pay for living expenses, books and transportation. In a recent survey, more than 40 percent of surveyed KIPP charter school alumni, most of whom are low-income, reported missing meals to pay for books or other expenses.

While Cuomo’s plan extends to families that make $125,000 or less, this letter proposes increasing that figure to $175,000. A family with two teachers, nurses or union laborers — which many consider middle class — make too much to benefit from the plan, according to the letter.

Changing these provisions would likely to swell the cost of the plan. Cuomo’s expects his plan to cost $163 million per year when fully phased in. Skoufis said his back-of-the-envelope calculations put this plan at about $1 billion per year.

“It’s more expensive, but if we’re going to do it right, we’re going to cost more money,” he said.

The next test for these proposals is whether they will be included in the Assembly’s one-house budget bill, which reflects the body’s priorities heading into final budget negotiations. A group of Republicans Assembly members have already put forth a plan that would expand the state’s existing tuition assistance program, which can be used at either public or private colleges.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the governor’s office.

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.”