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.”

down to the wire

As New York’s free college tuition debate heats up, experts weigh in on whether a flawed tuition bill is worth passing

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

With the state budget deadline approaching, it’s not yet clear whether New York state will make a historic investment in tuition-free college — but it is almost certain that not everybody will get what they want.

With the three key plans — from the governor, Assembly and Senate — on the table, lawmakers now have to decide which aspects of the proposal makes it into the final deal. The governor’s original Excelsior Scholarship proposal offered free tuition at state colleges for families earning less than $125,000 per year. The Assembly wants more help for low-income students and more flexible requirements, and the Senate wants private colleges to also receive a boost.

In the midst of this heated discussion, panelists at an event hosted by the Center for New York City Affairs tackled the question: Is a “bad” bill better than no bill?

Here are their answers:

Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid and the Betrayal of the American Dream

Answer: Yes.

What’s a bad bill here? Everything that you’re discussing can be made more perfect. But please know that you’re talking about the future not only of New Yorkers here, but of people across the country. This is a nascent idea. It’s a difficult idea and it is gathering steam and for New York to step into the fray, even with an imperfect proposal, is very important, and it would be a major step backward to take if off the table. There are lots of states and lots of students around the country watching New York, and I think that the chance for New York and Albany to make history here is really very present.

This conversation and this dynamic is going to continue to play out across the country and it’s absolutely imperative that this moves forward. We should make it as good as it can be and then we should make it better over time.

Kimberly Cline, president, Long Island University

Answer: It really should include private colleges.

We would like to see a bill … that tied more into TAP [the state’s Tuition Assistance Program] because we feel that TAP has not been moved up in a long time, so students have not had the benefit of that. And that could benefit both public and independent colleges and the economy of New York state.

Mike Fabricant, first vice president, Professional Staff Congress, CUNY

Answer: It’s got to stay free. It’s got to stay public. It’s got to help CUNY.

To make is more perfect, I would stay with two things the governor’s done: One, conceptually to speak about free tuition is an incredibly important moment and a critically important point. For him to speak about undocumented students and others to be included is extraordinarily important and we have to hold him accountable on that … And finally, not including privates … is incredibly important as we move in the other direction to invest in public universities.

That said, we also need to be dealing with the other side of the equation, which is in fact the capacity …. My feeling is we spend so much time on the affordability side and we lack parts of capacity to pay for affordability.

Assemblymember James Skoufis, who represents Orange and Rockland Counties. (Skoufis drafted a letter, signed by 30 Assembly members, that called for a tuition plan with softer credit requirements, a raised income threshold and a boost for low-income students.)

Answer: We should fight for more, but in the end, we should do something.

There are some purists in the legislature and I’m not one who believes we should let the perfect get in the way of the good. I’ve been critical of the governor’s proposal in that it only helps 32,000 additional students. That’s the projected number of students who will benefit from his Excelsior Scholarship. I think it should be many, many, many more than that, but look, who am I to say if I’m one of those 32,000 students that gets help that it’s not a big deal to them?

What we have to be wary [of] is that, if the governor’s proposal moves forward or some similar version to it, that we all just don’t celebrate and say “OK, we’ve accomplished free tuition in New York” and now it’s off the table and we don’t try to make it better. That’s the one fear that I do have, that if we do get some watered-down version of free tution that people are going to sort of rest on their laurels on this issue and it’s going to be considered done. So that is one thing I’m wary of, but yeah, we’ve got to do something here. Strike while the iron’s hot.

Kevin Stump, Northeast director of Young Invincibles

Answer: We have to be really, really careful

This is a national moment, this coming from New York right now. This coming from a [possible] presidential nominee for 2020. This is a big deal that will have consequences here on out, which is why it matters to get it right. Because we’re not going to have another moment like this in New York. This is going to set the tone for states across the country, which is why advocates who have been doing this in New York for years are concerned that we’re just going to do this, wash our hands, and walk away. Leave the universities with even greater budget holes and continue to do nothing for the most [needy] students who already have their tuition paid for and already can’t afford to pay for the non-tuition related costs, which make up the majority of getting a college degree. So we need to continue to push and have a conversation about what investment means — and it’s certainly more than $163 million.