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.”

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.”