Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Experts: NY Free-College Model Positive, Not Perfect

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Experts: NY Free-College Model Positive, Not Perfect

Article excerpt

While the state of New York's new "tuition-free college" program may pave the way for similar and broader programs throughout the country, the way the program is structured makes it so that it will benefit the middle class and do nothing for low-income students.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office never pretended anything else, announcing recently that the program will "provide tuition-free college to middle-class families."

Nevertheless, advocates and policy experts say the Excelsior Scholarship program--included in New York state's fiscal 2018 budget agreement--represents an important first step toward making college more affordable.

The program makes attendance at New York state's public universities--CUNY and SUNY institutions--tuition-free for families that make $125,000 a year or less.

While programs in a number of other states offer "free" community college, Excelsior is considered the first of its kind in that it extends free tuition to four-year universities.

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"What's exciting is that this is a first step--a positive step in the direction of eliminating cost as a barrier to access and success," says Kevin Stump, the New York-based northeast regional director for Young Invincibles, a nonprofit that focuses on policy issues that affect 18- to 34-year-olds.

However, Stumps enthusiasm for Excelsior was tempered by the fact that the program functions as a "last dollar" scholarship program that only covers what New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and federal Pell Grants do not cover.

TAP grants cover up to $5,165 of tuition for approved schools in New York. The maximum Pell Grant for the 2017-18 school year is $5,920.

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"Because of how generous TAP and Pell Grants are to cover the cost of tuition at SUNY or CUNY, this program isn't really designed to help (low-income students)," Stump says of Excelsior. "And as we know the majority of costs associated with getting a college degree are non-tuition-related. Food, books, housing--those are really what the majority of costs are."

Dr. Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College (CUNY), where in-state tuition is $5,218, also calls Excelsior "an important first step" and expressed similar concerns, although in more positive terms. She describes Excelsior as a "bold and visionary" idea.

"Tuition is but one factor of college affordability; our hope is that, with Excelsior, more LaGuardia students will need to work one job as opposed to two or more, in order to afford living expenses, books and other college-related fees," Mellow says.

"Excelsior is significant for its potential to make earning a college degree an achievable goal for more New Yorkers--and to encourage students from all income backgrounds to see themselves as college material."

The Excelsior scholarship program is expected to be phased in over three years, beginning in the fall of 2017 for New York state residents who make up to $100,000 annually. It will expand to residents who earn up to $110,000 in 2018, and finally in 2019 to those who make $125,000.

Scholars must be enrolled in college full-time and average 30 credits per year in order to receive the funding; however, the program has "built-in flexibility so that any student facing hardship is able to pause and restart the program, or take fewer credits one semester than another," according to Cuomo's office.

Students must keep up a grade point average necessary for the successful completion of their coursework. …

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