Greenfield Shakes Up City Council + Excelsior Scholarships

Local News

Elections

Cuomo’s “Free College” Plan

When the State budget was passed back in April, one of the major stories was the inclusion of Governor Cuomo’s plan for free tuition to in-state students. While the shortcomings of the plan were immediately obvious to those familiar with the details, it was still seen as a political victory for the Governor. With the deadline for the initial round of applications approaching this Friday, the specifics of the plan are still unclear to many students statewide. Nevertheless, the program received 21,000 applications in its first five days.

Plan Details: The most prominent part of the program, the Excelsior Scholarship, covers full tuition at SUNY (State University of New York) and CUNY (City University of New York) schools for State residents with incomes below $100,000 (the cutoff will rise to $125,000 when the plan is fully phased in). However, two particularly onerous requirements require that students take 30 credits in each academic year, and that students live in New York State for at least as many years following graduation that they received the Scholarship. Failure to meet these requirements converts the grants to no-interest student loans, saddling students with unanticipated debt.

The Enhanced Tuition Awards (ETA), another component of the program, recieved less publicity. These grants of up to $6,000 would be offered to students at local private colleges, and carry the same income and residency requirements attached to the Excelsior Scholarship. They were added out of concern that the Excelsior Scholarship would put private colleges at a disadvantage, but due to concerns about the program and funding requirements, only about one out of three eligible schools opted into the program.

Plan Shortcomings: Aside from the strict requirements accompanying these scholarships, the plan suffers from another major flaw: its benefits will not go to the neediest students. Most CUNY students already pay no tuition—that expense is covered by Pell grants and the State’s Tuition Assistance Program—yet college remains unaffordable due to associated costs and the City’s high cost of living. Even at SUNY schools, tuition makes up less than half of the cost of attending college for an in-state student. The Excelsior Scholarship does not address the cost of room and board, books, or other expenses. Yet students who have seen headlines and ads for “free college” may not recognize that limitation.

Indeed, these limitations are likely to disproportionately harm low-income students, as those who need to work during the school year to keep up with these costs will run afoul of the full courseload requirement, and be saddled with unexpected debt loads. Meanwhile, the CUNY and SUNY systems continue to be underfunded, with tuition rising for students who are ineligible for these programs.

The quick rollout of the program has also led to confusion about the details. While Cuomo allocated enough money for 22,000 scholarships in its first year, nearly that many people applied in the first five days of the application window. If more than 22,000 students are eligible, it is not clear how the shortfall will be filled. Overall, the shortcomings of the plan are yet another reminder not to trust Andrew Cuomo.

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