Blair Horner: NY's “Tuition-Free” Scholarship Gets Its First Grade

Dec 18, 2017

Last week, the New York State Assembly Higher Education committee held a public hearing to review the performance of the new Excelsior Scholarship program.  The Excelsior Scholarship was established in this year’s state budget and was rolled out with great fanfare by Governor Cuomo and Vermont’s U.S. Senator Sanders.

After other aid dollars are used up, the Excelsior Scholarship pays for 100% of the in-state, public college tuition for state residents whose families earn below a set annual income cap: $100,000 in 2017.  The scholarship only covers tuition; students bear the additional cost of fees, books, room and board, which can cost up to $14,000 annually.

To maintain the scholarship, Excelsior students must obtain 30 class credits in a year and at least 12 credits per semester at a state public college, either in the State University of New York (SUNY) or the City University of New York (CUNY).  The annual income eligibility cap will increase as the Excelsior program is phased in (to $110,000 in 2018, and $125,000 in 2019).

The Fall 2017 academic semester was the first time the scholarship was offered and the Assembly hearing focused on how well the rollout was conducted and how many students were benefitting.

Of particular concern was the late, compressed time frame that students had to apply for the scholarship.  The program was established as part of the state budget in April.  It wasn't until June 7th that the application window for the scholarships even opened.  It closed 45 days later on Aug. 21st.  As a result, some students weren't notified until mid-semester that they were eligible for an award, and many had still not seen the tuition deducted from their bills.

During the 45-day window this past summer, more than 95,000 students applied for a scholarship and 46,000 of them learned they would receive free tuition.  But not all of those received the new Excelsior Scholarship.  About 22,000 students ultimately were accepted into the Excelsior program, while another 23,000 who applied were deemed eligible for other tuition-assistance programs, such as the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), because their income fell below $80,000 a year.

That's because the scholarship is a "last-dollar" award, meaning it applies only after all other forms of financial aid are taken into account.  For decades, the lowest-income students in New York have been able to receive free or discounted tuition through the state's Tuition Assistance Program.

Interestingly, it’s been reported that the vast bulk of the Excelsior Scholarships went to students in SUNY; more than 17,000 went to students in SUNY and 4,700 were for CUNY.  In SUNY, about 12,000 students at four-year colleges and 5,300 at community colleges are receiving free tuition this fall as part of the Excelsior Scholarship program. 

According to that report, the most Excelsior grants in SUNY went to1,576 students at the University at Buffalo; 1,044 at the University at Albany; and 940 at Binghamton University.  Those numbers are not surprising, since SUNY’s University Centers have the most students.  What is surprising is how few awards went to students in the City University system.  While there is a significant difference in the total number of undergraduates, SUNY has around twice as many full time students as compared to CUNY, it received more than three times as many Scholarships.

For example, it has been reported that Queens College in the City University with an undergraduate population of nearly 13,000 full-time students received 774 Excelsior Scholarships, while the State University College at Oswego, with a full-time undergraduate population of over 7,000 received 700.  Of course, since the Scholarships are based on income and academic schedule, there are likely to be big differences between SUNY and CUNY public colleges.  But that disparity is an interesting outcome of this first semester.

Neither the hiccups in the rollout nor the interesting differences between public college systems should undermine support for the program.  Starting up a new program will always have its difficulties.  What is most important is that policymakers learn from those experiences and act to improve this important program.

At the hearing, the Cuomo Administration testified that the plan for next academic year includes a much earlier recruitment period for the program.  What should also be provided is a detailed “report card” on the current year’s Scholarship awards. 

In addition, the Administration could more formally release detailed campus-specific data and analyses on the demographics of Excelsior applicants, how many students were rejected from the scholarship, and the reasons applicants were denied.

Detailed information will help inform and drive the upcoming state budget debate in ways to improve the program and to maximize the benefits to college students.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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