Despite being met with mixed reactions when it was first proposed in January, over 75,000 students have applied for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $87 million “free tuition” program ahead of the July 21 deadline, according to the Higher Education Services Corporation.
Now, with no official timeline in place for the rollout, New Yorkers are waiting to see how the Excelsior Scholarship will pan out.
For Caleb Sooknanan, a sophomore biomedical engineering major, receiving the scholarship would lift a major burden off his family’s shoulders.
“I feel like this Excelsior scholarship is sort of like a step toward that realization,” he said. “This understanding that people of different backgrounds and financial levels can get an education without the sort of financial burdens that they would’ve normally faced.”
The program works in tandem with the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and Federal Student Aid to pay off the remaining balance of tuition – up to $5,500 for public school students. The money cannot be used for room and board or other expenses.
In order to qualify, applicants must have lived in New York for at least one year and have a household income of less than $100,000. This number will increase to $125,000 by 2019. After graduation, beneficiaries must live and work in New York for as many years as they received aid.
With the incentive of a free education on the table, Stony Brook University’s Dean of Admissions Judith Berhannan is expecting a bolstered interest in SUNY and CUNY schools.
“I anticipate that there will be increased applications, but we do not anticipate bringing in a significantly larger class,” she said.
This means that in future years, securing a spot at Stony Brook could become more difficult.
“At present, Stony Brook is very selective,” Berhannan said. “Potentially we may become more so, and or we may fill our class at an earlier point.”
Although Berhannan believes the Excelsior Scholarship could amplify a movement away from private colleges, she said this trend is nothing new.
“I think in general the public is becoming more conscious about debt, and I think that this is a factor that is influencing more students and families to maybe prioritize public colleges as their top choices.”
Meanwhile, officials from private colleges claim the scholarship gives public schools an unfair advantage. Back in March, schools from the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York banded together to oppose Cuomo’s plan.
“It is inexcusable to hurt lower and lower-middle income students who choose to attend a private university by excluding them from this program,” said Pace University’s previous president, Stephen J. Friedman, in a statement. “College is not a one-size-fits-all decision, it is about choice. All students deserve to attend a university or college that is the best fit for their needs.”
To appease the state’s private institutions, an optional program called the Enhanced Tuition Award (ETA) was later created and passed alongside the Excelsior Scholarship. ETA will provide eligible private school students with up to $6,000, in combination with TAP and contributions from their college. This year, 29 schools, including Pace, have signed on to the plan.
Sue Goetschius, director of communications at Alfred University, said offering ETA was a natural choice for her school. Since Alfred is home to the New York State College of Ceramics, a statutory college which receives public funding, many students there are already eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship.
“If we can help students afford higher education, we’re willing to try to do it whether it’s our resources or whether it’s state resources,” Goetschius said.
Nevertheless, most private schools continue to resist these new forms of aid. The College of Mount Saint Vincent is one of 67 schools refusing to offer ETA.
“I think the only outcome that’s certain from this initiative is that it has thrown the marketplace into confusion,” Mount Saint Vincent President Charles L. Flynn, Jr. said in an April interview with the digital news site Inside Higher Ed.
The director for admission at Mount Saint Vincent, Curt Dircks, said that it is important to approach the situation pragmatically.
“Yes, it could probably affect enrollment in the future, but until we see some actual changes I think we have nothing to worry about,” he said, adding that the college has successfully fulfilled its enrollment goal for the coming year.
For two-year college, Westchester Community College President Belinda S. Miles predicts the scholarship’s impact on enrollment could be a double-edged sword.
“I think that some of the students who tend to come to community colleges who might have preferred a four-year college or university experience might find themselves making that leap… so we’ll lose some students,” she said. “But I also think we’ll gain some students who might not have seen higher education as realistic for them.”
Although Miles said the program will have a positive impact overall, she takes issue with one rule, which states that students must take 30 credits per year and at least 12 per semester to qualify.
“I would love to see more support for part time students because they’re about half of our enrollment and so they are the quote unquote normal students,” she said.
Despite having voted for the bill, District 4 Assemblyman Steve Englebright has also expressed concerns about requirements for credit standing and grade point average, which he feels might be too strict.
“You have to be officially perfect for four years, and if you are not absolutely perfect each semester for four consecutive years, then your scholarship goes away,” he said.
According to the governor’s office, students who fail to meet the requirements while still in school will not have to return the money they’ve already received, but assistance for the next term will be discontinued. Those who are unable to stay in New York following graduation will have the total sum of their awards converted to a zero-interest loan.
Once all the applications have been reviewed, state officials will be forced to determine whether or not the program is equipped to meet the demand. When it was first announced, the Higher Education Services Corporation estimated the number of qualified applicants would be around 23,000, well under the amount of students who actually applied.
Although the state has not yet determined how many of these applicants qualify, if all 75,000 students who have applied are eligible, the budget would only be able to cover $1,160 for each of them, or the full award for 21 percent of applicants.
With no plans in place to acquire additional funding, the program’s success hinges on the assumption that the number of qualified students will not exceed 23,000. Officials from the Higher Education Services Corporation maintain confidence in their projections, stating in an email, “We believe that sufficient funding has been provided; therefore, all students who are eligible are receiving awards for the 2017-18 school year.”
But even for qualified students who are selected, the scholarship may not be enough to make college completely tuition-free. Since tuition at four-year SUNY and CUNY schools is $6,670 and $6,530 respectively, even students who receive the full award amount may end up footing part of the bill themselves.
Putting these limitations aside, Englebright believes the Excelsior Scholarship takes an ambitious step toward solving the issue of income inequality through increased access to higher education.
“By investing into our young people, it will inevitably pay great dividends later,” he said. “Their earning capacity will be enhanced, their ability to pay taxes will be much greater and it is a synergistic program if it’s implemented properly.”