More than 940,000 families will qualify for tuition-free college at SUNY and CUNY schools once fully implemented
Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship program, which will provide free tuition to undergraduate students attending SUNY and CUNY schools beginning this fall, was signed into law at LaGuardia Community College in Queens last week.
Cuomo was joined at the bill signing by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who said “I was proud to put this plan forward during my campaign, and I’m thrilled that it’s become a reality in New York.”
Although lauded as a revolutionary idea and a model for other states, current students interviewed on the SUNY New Paltz campus the day after the bill signing have mixed feelings about the program. Many applaud the intent, but at the same time, they have questions and concerns about how it will actually be implemented, who will benefit and who will be left out.
“Me personally, I think the scholarship is great,” said Alex, a 20-year-old biology major from Westchester County, who did not want his last name published. “I’ve always fallen under the category of my family making too much and not qualifying for financial aid, yet my family is unable to pay for my schooling. So now I don’t have have to take out anymore student loans.”
Students who are ready to graduate this spring point out that they won’t see any benefits from the new program, as the Excelsior Scholarship currently does not include free tuition for graduate school.
“I wish there was an option to help other students who have already given so much money to the system already,” said Jack Closs, 21-year-old computer science major.
Many of the students interviewed for this report say they recognize the dangers of giving young adults enough responsibility to take out loans that could affect a big part of their adulthood. They clearly understand how such a program will alleviate the concerns of many families with college-age students.
“I absolutely support it,” said Michael Rosen, a 20-year-old public relations major from West Hempstead in Nassau County. “You have these kids that are entering school as teenagers, taking on such a massive amount of debt that they don’t even realize how negatively that’s going to affect their life in the future. And that’s understandable, because they’re teenagers. And [the Excelsior Scholarship] is something that’s really going to help with that.”
Watch the bill signing with Hillary Clinton, below.
The program covers tuition but not other expenses such as college fees, housing, meals or textbooks. The new budget passed last week does include $8 million for “open educational resources, including e-books, to students at SUNY and CUNY colleges to help defray the cost of textbooks,” but no other details have been disclosed.
“It covers tuition, but it doesn’t cover room and board,” said Leith Kusmider, a 20-year-old geography major from Maryland. “Oftentimes that makes up for one of the biggest expenses while going to college.”
“I believe that it is a step in the right direction,” says Ian Donaldson, a 21-year-old international relations and Asian studies major from Kingston, in Ulster County. “There are certain aspects which could use improvement, like an expansion to room and board and to food services, but for now it is good for future generations of lower income families.”
Some students who are nearing graduation are worried about the long-term effects on the value of their own diplomas that they paid for.
“From an economic standpoint it devalues education” said Vinny Fici, a 20-year-old business marketing major from Long Island. “But from a people’s perspective it helps more than it hurts.”
The program will be phased in over three years, beginning for New Yorkers making up to $100,000 annually in the fall of 2017, increasing to $110,000 in 2018 and reaching $125,000 in 2019.
“I have five siblings but my parents make just over the amount,” said McKenzie Ulrop, a sophomore majoring in geology. “There needs to be more provisions to take big families into account, it’s not thought out enough.”
The Governor’s Office estimates there are an estimated 942,186 families across the state with college-age students that would be eligible for the program. This represents about 75 percent of families statewide.
“It’s amazing — a big deal — and will hopefully set a precedent for the rest of the states to follow,” said Ally Lysiak, a SUNY New Paltz senior graduating this semester. But, she added, “It has its flaws; it doesn’t take into account a family’s situation.”
“This is definitely a great move forward to help people who deserve it,” says Sebastian Gordon-Archer, a 19-year-old marketing major from Queens. “But some families who may make more money than it is required to receive this may not necessarily be in the best boat either.”
One of the more controversial requirements of the Excelsior Scholarship is that students will be required to live and work in-state after graduation for the same number of years they received the scholarship. This is a concern for the SUNY Student Assembly and for individual students as well.
“It’s good and bad,” said John Goldpaugh, a 23 year old English major from Rosendale, Ulster County. “I mean, you definitely want people in the state to help build up that area. At the same time it’s like, why would you put a very specific caveat on it and have students have to stay in the state?
“Part of the reason you want to go to college is so you can expand and move out at a certain point, so I think it’s a little odd,” Goldpaugh added.
Alexis Ricci, a 20-year-old mathematics major from New Paltz said she doesn’t have a problem with having to stay in New York after graduation.
“I know there are scholarships … that are similar. My friend has one where he has to maintain a job position in New York state for five years, so this isn’t a problem.”
“This scholarship is awesome; it takes away a lot of stress from me,” said Rachel Smith, a 20-year-old accounting major from Millerton, Dutchess County. “Now I don’t have to worry about picking up every extra shifts at work.”
She said it’s “fair” to ask recipients to contribute to New York’s economy after graduation.
“Since the state is paying for your tuition which is expensive, it’s fair to have you stay after for an extra four years,” Smith said.
As the governor explain it last week, if a student does not stay in New York to work after graduation, the scholarship automatically becomes a loan to be paid back.
“I’ll be a part of this program for three years and even if I wind up moving out of state after that, I’d rather take the opportunity while I have it and take on the loans later,” said Andre Dvorak, an 18-year-old visual arts major who is a second-semester freshman.
“Staying in New York for an extra four years after schools seems like a small price to pay if it means you’ll have no student debt,” says Molli Salomon, an 18-year-old mathematics major from East Meadow, Nassau County.
“It’s fair,” said Amanda Kavanagh, a 19-year-old geography major from Long Island. “The state is giving us free tuition so we might as well give something back.”
While some students may not like the post-graduation residency requirement, they understand why it’s necessary.
“I personally do not like the idea because I am trying to teach abroad for a couple years,” said Kyle Mercadante, a 19-year-old Spanish major from Glen Cove, Nassau County. “But I see the reasoning why they implement that because people could just receive free tuition and then dip to another city and help that state’s economy.”
“I’m thinking about going to McGill or another international school for grad school and living abroad after that,” said Alina Schroeder, a 19-year-old studying communication disorders and French. “That’s my issue with it. I don’t want to be constrained to where I move.”
Eligible students must be enrolled in college full-time and average 30 credits per year (including summer and January semesters) in order to receive the funding.
The program allows some flexibility so that any student facing hardship is able to pause and restart the program, or take fewer credits one semester than another.
To maintain eligibility, students must maintain a grade point average required for their major, department or program which can vary across the SUNY system and even across disciplines on a single campus.
By 2024, 3.5 million jobs in New York will require an associate’s degree or higher. That is 420,000 more jobs than 2014.
The number of students eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship varies by region:
Western New York has 68,712 families with college-age students, 78.8 percent of those are eligible, according to the Governor’s Office.
- New York City has 461,499 families with college-age students, with 84.3 percent eligible.
- Long Island has 112,890 families with college-age students, with 55.6 percent eligible.
- Hudson Valley has 92,333 families with college age students, with 63 percent eligible.
- Capitol Region has 44,108 families with college age students, with 74.9 percent eligible.
- Mohawk Valley has 24,845 families with college-age students, with 84.8 percent eligible.
- Finger Lakes has 55,747 families with college-age students, with 79.2 percent eligible.
- North Country has 18,542 families with college age students, with 84.8 percent eligible.
- Central New York has 37,922 families with college-age students, with 79.6 percent eligible.
- Southern Tier has 25,588 families with college-age students, with 81.2 percent eligible.
The scholarship program will start to be phased in this fall. The budget included a regulation that funding for campus operations can never drop below the previous fiscal year. But still, some faculty and staff have raised concerns about the expected influx of students. Students shared those concerns and pointed out that the application process might become even more difficult, especially for already competitive schools such as New Paltz, Geneseo and Binghamton.
“Nothing is free in life,” said 20-year-old public relations major Christine Donat from Long Island. “If people who normally wouldn’t go to college would go just because it is free, that makes it more competitive for other students who aren’t given this opportunity.”
“Competition could increase, in terms of the academic requirements necessary to get into college, since financing will no longer be a deciding factor in whether or not people will be able to attend college,” said Justin Macklowe, a 21-year-old biology major from Kingston, Ulster County.
Students on other SUNY campuses were also talking about the landmark Excelsior Scholarship program this week.
Some say the state’s focus should be on making K-12 more rigorous by providing more resources there.
“I think it’s good that the college scam system is being disrupted and the thieves will be forced to lower their prices,” said Marcus Russo, a 21-year-old from Blue Point, Suffolk County, who is studying mechanical engineering at the University at Buffalo. “But I don’t think this is necessarily the magic solution to fix the education system.
“I think it would be much more effective to take all this money and completely restructure the public school system,” Russo said. “High school should be much more rigorous and have more resources available to students, and they should teach classes at a college level or even be able to grant degrees.
“Colleges only make money because high school doesn’t do its job, it’s just four years of waiting around until you can go out and buy an actual education,” he added. “Essentially, my solution would be to make high school the new college, rather than make college the new high school.”
“The way college is commoditized and commercialized, it’s a luxury in practical application,” said Michael Montano, 21 of Bayport, Suffolk County, who is studying psychology at Binghamton University. “Philosophically, it is an absolute necessity. Not in the sense that people should be forced to go to school, but it should always be an option for anyone.
“I think the [$125,000] household income prerequisite is a bit restrictive, but this is a new type of situation so I can understand the limitations at the beginning of this process. If there’s not already a plan to widen the eligibility margin, then that should be a focus. A household income of less than $200,000 per year based on the number of working people in the household would be more ideal.”
This story was reported and written by students in Professor James Gormley’s journalism class at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
The following students contributed to this report: Anna Cullen, Devin Tirado, Gabriella Pomata, Leslie Mozo-Quiralte, Patricia Mollo, Alexandra Macri, Aimee Becker, Kaitlin Lopez, Miles Figaro, Patrick Carpenter, Max J. Freebern, Mateo Gonzalez, Amanda Marcano, and Kenneth Wood.
Legislative Gazette Assistant Editor Kaleb H. Smith helped edit this report.