SUNY sorting out 75,000 Excelsior Scholarship applications

Legislative Gazette photo by Katelyn Cordero

The Excelsior Scholarship, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s program to provide tuition-free public college for working-class families, accepted its final application for the upcoming school year last week.

According to media reports citing the Governor’s Office, the program received more than 75,000 applications — 51,000 to SUNY and 24,000 to CUNY. Five days after opening the program to the public, officials had already received 21,000 applications.

The current state budget passed in early April sets aside $87 million to cover the program, but this funding was established when officials forecasted 23,000 qualifying applications — enough to cover about $3,782 in tuition for every application, or the full $5,500 for up to 69 percent of them.

If all 75,000-plus students qualify, $87 million only covers enough for $1,160 in aid for each, or the full award for up to 21 percent of them.

Officials have not yet stated how many of the 75,000 applications will qualify for an award, but the program’s website states that 76 percent of families in New York with college-age children are eligible.

Only those students whose family makes $100,000 or less will qualify in the first year of the program. That income ceiling will eventually rise to $125,000.

Depending on a student’s school, and whether or not they are receiving other aid, a student might not receive the maximum award of $5,500. At SUNY and CUNY community colleges, tuition is less than that, and the scholarship will not provide aid that exceeds it. Since regular tuition charged by four-year schools exceeds the maximum award, students will receive a SUNY tuition credit for the rest.

The Excelsior scholarship is a last-dollar program, meaning that other scholarships and government grants are applied before calculating an award. Since it covers low- to middle-income households, most applicants will already be receiving aid like TAP and Pell grants, lessening the award needed to cover tuition costs.

The Excelsior Scholarship does not cover room and board, books or other college fees.

Many students who not qualify for free tuition this year will see their college costs go up.

On June 21, the SUNY Board passed a series of amendments to its tuition rates. The most publicized change was a $200 increase per year for undergraduate resident tuition — the maximum allowed by legislators — and was subject to criticism from student leaders.

“When we roll over and raise tuition year after year, we create an expectation and an incentive to the state to skimp on appropriately investing in our system,” said Marc Cohen, president of the SUNY Student Assembly who also serves on the SUNY Board of Trustees. “And why would they, knowing that we will just reach down into our bottomless ATM of students and simply take out more cash?”

SUNY also raised resident tuition for certain degrees.

Tuition for the physician’s assistant, pharmacy, medicine, dentistry, optometry, business administration, social work and architecture graduate programs was raised. Non-resident undergraduate tuition was also raised for students in SUNY’s online degree programs and for those at Morrisville State College, Maritime College, and the Universities at Buffalo and Stony Brook. Non-resident graduate tuition for optometry and architecture was raised as well.

Courtesy of the University at Buffalo

None of these, including the $200 increase to undergraduate tuition, exceeded a five percent change.

Meanwhile, SUNY cut non-resident graduate tuition for law, pharmacy, physical therapy, and nursing practice, as well as for all of its online graduate programs. These changes were far more drastic, ranging from 22 percent to more than 40 percent. None dropped below the resident equivalents, suggesting an effort to draw in out-of-state students while keeping their tuition profitable.

Schools are taking steps to enhance revenue on their own, too.

Many SUNY schools with housing have raised their rates in preparation for the fall. Some of them, like SUNY College at New Paltz, have restructured their meal plans to cut down on food service costs.

Since students living on-campus are required to purchase a meal plan, this would result in a reliable increase in revenue, although it’s uncertain whether this is routine or an effort to compensate for uncertain tuition revenues in the coming school year.

In the past year alone, SUNY’s Buffalo State, Geneseo, Orange, Poly, New Paltz, Potsdam, and Stony Brook schools have all reported or expected cuts or deficits to their budgets. Many have responded by laying off employees or freezing new hires.

Most SUNY community colleges cannot fall back on resident revenue because they lack housing or meal plans, but data suggests that fewer of their students are likely to qualify for the Excelsior scholarship.

Two of the scholarship’s requirements state that students must enroll full-time and complete their degree in two years or four years for an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, respectively. Compared to four-year schools, SUNY community colleges have roughly three times the proportion of part-time students, and only a third as many of their students would meet the time constraints on graduation.

“The bottom line is that no one program can be all things to all people. And the fiscal reality is that our state simply cannot afford to cover college tuition across the board – not at all colleges and not for all students,” SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher said in an open letter to New Yorkers published in February. “But if New York State can bring a SUNY or CUNY education within reach for college-aged children in 940,000 households – as the governor’s office estimates Excelsior would do – we have to try.”