Impact Work

The Rocky Road to Free College

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship Mixes the Best and the Worst of College Affordability

by Katelyn Harrop
Apr 27 2017, 2:15pm

Photo via Flickr user MTA photos

The value of a college degree is almost inarguable. According to research from Georgetown University, only 36 percent of jobs in the national economy will be available without a college diploma by 2020, yet research from 2015 suggests that over 80 percent of the nation is unable to afford a secondary degree.

As access to higher education becomes a shrinking focus on the federal level, New York State is stepping in with a first-of-its-kind free-tuition plan. While the Excelsior Scholarship is a revolutionary move, it may fall short of helping students who need assistance the most.

A big step forward: New York State takes on free tuition for all state colleges and universities

With the passing of the the 2018 state budget, New York became the first state in the country to offer free college tuition to qualifying students accepted to both two and four year state institutions. This follows in the footsteps of states including Oregon and Tennessee who have already adopted free tuition for two year institutions. Under the Excelsior Scholarship, students from families making up to $100,000 per year will be eligible for free tuition this fall, with families making up to 125,000 qualifying by 2019.

"The Excelsior Scholarship will make college accessible to thousands of working and middle class students and shows the difference that government can make," said New York's Gov. Cuomo in a press release. "There is no child who will go to sleep tonight and say, I have great dreams, but I don't believe I'll be able to get a college education because parents can't afford it."

Free for some, not free for all

But the cheers of support have been somewhat drowned out by voices of concern over what some critics consider to be a series of shortcomings and loopholes. To some, the Excelsior Scholarship is too good to be true. The first problem is clear from the program's press release headline: "Governor Cuomo Announces First-in-the-Nation Excelsior Scholarship Program Will Provide Tuition-Free College to Middle-Class Families."

The plan could offer free tuition to almost 80 percent of New York families, but costs such as room, board, books and fees may still keep college at arms length for low income households. SUNY estimates these non-tuition costs at $15,570 per year, which is well over twice the cost of tuition. While the plan does provide some funds for resources such as online textbooks, the vast majority of these expenses are left to families, often in the form of loans.

"...the Excelsior Scholarship is limited in helping lower-income students with financial support because the proposal only applies to tuition, which represents an average of just 29 to 36 percent of total college costs at SUNY and CUNY, and because it only covers tuition after other sources of aid have been exhausted," said the Education Trust -- New York in a press release.

The Excelsior Scholarship is also limited to matriculating, full-time students, leaving non-traditional part-time students, such as parents, students responsible for family care, and many students working full-time out of the free-tuition equation.

Free tuition for required residency

Critics of the plan have also raised concern over a post-graduation residency mandate, which requires students to reside in-state for the same number of years that they received tuition funding, or risk finding their free college tuition exchanged for student loans.

New York State Budget Director, Robert Mujica, told VICE Impact that the requirement, which was added during the negotiations processes, is not intended to limit students, but to enforce engagement in the communities that fund their education.

"One of the desires was to insure that the scholarship funds were focused on students that are going to remain in New York State to the extent that we're investing in free college for students, that then those investments actually stay within the state," Mujica said. "It also insures that those who come here to benefit from this first-in-the-nation program of giving free college, that they are actually going to be staying in the state."

Mujica said the majority of SUNY and CUNY graduates already stay in-state following graduation, with more than 80 percent of CUNY diploma recipients remaining in New York. The program does offer exemptions and deferrals to this rule, Mujica said, including in the case of graduate school, personal hardship, or international service,

But some higher education reform advocates, such as Temple University professor and author Sara Goldrick-Rab, has spoken out against this portion of the program. "Extortion is bad public policy, @NYGovCuomo - pls keep promise to NY's middle class & remove this provision in the free college bill," tweeted Goldrick-Rab.

These concerns have been echoed in editorials throughout New York State and nationwide, voicing concerns that the legislation falls short of putting student success before economic and political motivations.

Cuomo's plan is a revolutionary step in the right direction, but a reminder of the work still needed to insure equal access to higher education.

Right now, lawmakers across the country are considering legislation relevant to equal access to higher education. Resources such as Callgov.us and The Sixty Five make finding contact information for your representatives easy and websites and apps like Countable let you track your reps votes on the bills that matter most.

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