What’s the cost? The Excelsior Scholarship program launch

Freshman Natyra Walker sits outside the admissions office on the first day of school at Jefferson Community College.

By: Marc Heller

New York’s new Excelsior Scholarship program to help students attend the state’s public colleges tuition-free is shaking up enrollment at north country colleges, but administrators aren’t ready to call it a big success.

                The program has had a bumpy start.  Its rollout came late in the enrollment cycle, and students are still figuring out the requirements. Private institutions and their allies in the state Legislature, opposed to limiting the benefit to state and New York City colleges as first proposed, secured an expanded Tuition Assistance Program for private colleges that institutions haven’t fully em-braced.

                A requirement that students live and work in New York for a period of time after receiving the scholarships, added by the Senate, could dampen enthusiasm with students who envision work-ing elsewhere after graduation and create complications for those who enter the military, admin-istrators said, and it’s not clear how employers will view that aspect’s effect on hiring recent graduates. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, criticized the requirement, saying it could undermine economic mobility and raises questions about enforcement.

                Still, the scholarships have generated intense interest, administrators say, and will help soften the rising cost of higher education. Tuition averages $6,470 a year for a bachelor’s degree program at the State University of New York.

                In short, administrators and financial aid officers said, a clear picture of the program’s impact probably won’t emerge for at least another year. By then, they said, the application periods for the scholarships and college admissions will be more in sync.

                “Just knowing it’s there helps students who think college is too expensive,” said Susan Sadoni, dean of enrollment at Jefferson Community College. “Any help for our students is wonderful.” She said about 150 students at the community college were approved for Excelsior scholarships this year.

                Some students, especially from families with moderate incomes who don’t otherwise qualify for grants, rely heavily on the new scholarships, aimed at families with incomes up to $125,000, said Kerrie Cooper, director of financial aid at SUNY Canton.

                “We have seen several students benefit who wouldn’t have had anything or very little other-wise.  If a student knows what they want to do and they are in the middle income range, this is perfect,” Cooper said.

                About 940,000 students statewide could eventually become eligible after the program is fully phased-in in 2019, according to the State Higher Education Services Corp., which administers Excelsior scholarships. Some 84.8 percent of families with college-aged students in Northern New York would be eligible — tied with the Mohawk Valley for the highest rate in the state, ac-cording to SUNY. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office said the plan would cost about $163 million a year.

                Gov. Cuomo proposed the plan in January, and it is the first program of its kind to be imple-mented in a state. With Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at his side at a news conference, Gov. Cuomo said that while a college education is more important than ever in the job market, the growing debt for recent college graduates — averaging $29,320 in 2015 — is “like starting a race with an anchor tied to your leg.”

                Students apply for the scholarships annually. Applicants must have lived in New York for at least a year prior to the period for which they’re seeking the scholarship. Students who receive a scholarship for a two-year associate’s degree can apply for an additional award to pursue a bachelor’s degree, but the program doesn’t allow applicants to pursue either a second associate’s or second bachelor’s degree. Recipients who move out of the state have to pay back the money as if it were a loan.

                Students at the state’s community colleges face a particular challenge with the program’s fine print, though, Sadoni said. Part-time students may have a hard time reaching the requirement for 30 credits a year, especially because those credits have to be in the student’s degree program, she said.

                Other requirements, such as staying in New York, fit well with SUNY Jefferson, Sadoni said, as most students are from the north country and may be looking to stay in the area.

                Officials at SUNY Potsdam, which has an incoming class of around 800 students, reported 500 applications for Excelsior scholarships on the last day of the application period. To help students meet the 30-credit requirement, the college added summer sessions, a spokeswoman said.

                “It’s not a simple program,” said SUNY Potsdam’s director of financial aid, Susan E. Godreau. She said she expects some aspects may be changed as the scholarships are phased in, but other details that can prove challenging — such as requiring continuous enrollment and not al-lowing a semester off, for instance — don’t seem likely to be relaxed. About 80 percent of stu-dents at Potsdam receive some type of financial aid, she said.

                Students don’t always understand the scholarships’ mandates and conditions, Cooper said. For instance, she said, they emphasize timely completion of studies by requiring students to obtain a degree within two to four years, depending on the program — a mandate that the governor said would help turn around the state’s low on-time college-completion rate of less than 40 percent for students attending four-year SUNY colleges. The award covers only tuition, not room and board, meaning students may need additional aid for those costs; and other grants and scholarships count against it, meaning the Excelsior award makes up for any shortage in tuition costs that other aid doesn’t cover.

                A companion program providing $6,000 tuition awards for private colleges and universities car-ries similar features and restrictions, except that institutions can choose whether to participate and have to match the state money. They also had to agree to freeze tuition for students who receive the scholarships. A total of 30 of about 100 institutions opted in, according to the Com-mission on Independent Colleges and Universities, an organization representing private institu-tions in New York.

                “It’s definitely a challenge, and that’s why we don’t see full participation,” said Emily Donahue, communications director for the CICU. The plan for private colleges also ran on a different time-line this year, with a later end to the application and award process, so colleges still didn’t have a clear idea of the program’s progress as students were returning to class in some places.

                “Right now, schools and students are in a little bit of limbo,” Donahue said.

                One college that didn’t sign up was Clarkson University in Potsdam.

                “There wasn’t enough certainty about how it would work,” said Clarkson’ s vice president for  external relations, Kelly Chezum. The university is waiting to decide whether to participate next year.

                “I think it’s just, let’s see how this first year went,” Chezum said.

                Although Clarkson’s students are mostly New Yorkers — about 70 percent are residents before they enroll, Chezum said — they take jobs all around the country after graduation, and that’s a factor in applying for a scholarship that requires state residency for a time, she said. Chezum said she’s not sure how employment recruiters would view students who face pressure to remain in New York because of the scholarship’s requirement. Recipients have to stay in New York for a time equivalent to the period they were using the scholarship, although other administrators at other schools said a graduate set on a good job out of state will probably conclude it’s worth letting the scholarship convert to a loan.

                On the other hand, Chezum said, Clarkson wants to do as much as it can to ease the burden of tuition, room and board that totals $47,950 per student. Aware that enrollment might suffer be-cause of the Excelsior scholarship at state schools, Clarkson boosted financial aid paid for by alumni, she said.

                About 60 percent of Clarkson’s students come from families making less than $125,000 a year, Chezum said. “Access to education is so important.”

                Among the factors Clarkson will consider in participating, Chezum said, is whether all students in the right income range will qualify — or whether they’ll have to enter a lottery to be selected. The state Legislature allocated $19 million for the private colleges program this year, suggesting a lottery is the most likely outcome, said Donahue of the CICU.

                Among large private universities upstate, only Cornell University is participating, according to the New York Higher Education Services Corp. Neither Syracuse University nor St. Lawrence University is on a list published by the HESC.

                Even that is a change in tone from earlier this year, when the CICU predicted dire outcomes if an Excelsior scholarship program were enacted without offering something similar to private in-stitutions, which was how Gov. Cuomo initially proposed it. They predicted falling enrollment — and possibly employment — at private colleges and universities, citing a Georgetown University study that estimated enrollment declines between 7 percent and 15 percent from a similar plan for the nation proposed by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016.

                In contrast, on average, private institutions contribute as much as $23 in financial assistance for every dollar New York puts into the Tuition Assistance Program, the CICU said.

                Enhancing the TAP, rather than pushing free tuition at public universities, “preserves regional economies, provides students choice, and protects the strengths of New York’s higher education system — public universities, private colleges and universities, and community colleges,” said the president of Union College in Schenectady, Stephen Charles Ainlay, also vice-chairman of the CICU Board of Trustees, in a news release earlier this year.

                The CICU had said that a free tuition plan alone could cause enrollment to fall by 54,000 students at private institutions statewide, including more than 800 in Northern New York, while direct and indirect job losses exceed 44,000 statewide and 500 in Northern New York.

                With the program being phased over three years, colleges will have time to assess both plans’ strengths and weaknesses. “I expect that in future years, the mechanics of this will be easier,” said Godreau, at SUNY Potsdam.

                Lawmakers say they’ll keep looking for ways to make college more affordable and keep financial aid as simple as possible.

                State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie (R-Heuvelton), in a statement, credited the Republican-led state Senate for improving upon Gov. Cuomo’s program by adding money for the Tuition Assistance Program, bringing that program to $1.1 billion and providing enough money to help an additional 25,000 students; adding the requirement to live and work in New York; and boosting financial aid for part-time community college students by $3.1 million.

                “There is still a long way to go when it comes to making college more affordable for all and addressing the issue of exploding student debt,” Sen. Ritchie said. “Moving forward, I am committed to continuing to work with my colleagues toward those goals in an effort to provide the best educational opportunities pos-sible to New York’s students.”