Questions Remain: How effective and efficient is the Excelsior Scholarship Program?

Students walk through the lobby of the Jules Center during the first day of classes at Jefferson Community College.

BY: Kevin Shea
In the spring of 2016, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo established the Excelsior Scholarship program, a promise of free tuition at public colleges in New York State for its residents.

    The program surprised and excited many. But two years later, wrinkles remain in its application process and its impact to schools both private and public.

    The goal was to reduce the financial burden of college for students by offering to pay whatever remained of a student’s bill after factoring in all other scholarships. It would pay up to $5,500 of a student’s tuition to a SUNY or CUNY school.

    Simply signing up is complicated.

    “Almost all of the Excelsior guidance we’ve received has been informal,” SUNY financial aid officer Sarah Buell said at a Higher Education Services Corp. board of trustees meeting Aug. 1. “There is no efficient way to track down what the most recent guidance is.”

    Eligibility is restricted to those whose family has a combined federal adjusted gross income of $110,000 or less for the 2018-19 academic year, or $125,000 or less for the 2019-20 academic year and thereafter, and who are residents of New York state. One must have lived in the state for 12 months to qualify.

    Qualifications aside, paperwork has been known to bury the applicant as well as confuse, as the process can appear convoluted:

    Applicants must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA seven to 10 days before an Excelsior application, and the New York State Payment Application must be completed three to five days before finishing the Excelsior scholarship. Students also must check how much will be received from Pell grants, school scholarships and the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant. For some, the amount left over might not be worth being paid for by Excelsior, as there are further stipulations such as a post-graduation residency requirement and strict credit hour rules.

    The process has also confused experts like Ms. Buell.

    “We believe you will be eligible” has been uttered too many times, she said.

    “We feel strongly that until such time as HESC provide formal written comprehensive guidance on the Excelsior Scholarship program, that institutes should be held harmless,” Ms. Buell said.

    “We remain committed to doing that and to formalize the guidance, as you have requested, but this is an enormous task for us on multiple levels,” Higher Education Services Corp. President Guillermo Linares said at the meeting.

    “We have provided guidance in writing out to schools. What people may not be aware of is where to find the guidance that was written. We know in the end we need to compile all that into a single document,” said Elsa McGee, executive vice president of the Higher Education Services Corp.

    Within a week of the meeting, a page on the Higher Education Services Corp. website was set up that compiled information on the Excelsior Scholarship program. In a memo to those working at SUNY and CUNY, SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson and interim CUNY Chancellor Vita C. Rabinowitz announced that the website would be updated as more information is compiled. Thus far it contains information on eligibility requirements, how to verify credits, and additional resources such as webinars and memos.

    “This site has been a joint effort between SUNY, CUNY and HESC, and it will continue to be updated as new information is needed or requested,” SUNY press secretary Holly Liapis wrote in an email to the Watertown Daily Times.

    At the time of the program’s birth, there was also speculation as to how the program would affect private and public colleges.

    For local public colleges, the new program has been accepted and welcomed.

    “We were exceptionally pleased with the early success of the Excelsior Scholarship program. The ground breaking scholarship helps us continue our commitment to growing our enrollment and maintaining SUNY Canton as the North Country’s affordable, career-driven educational choice,” wrote Travis Smith, SUNY Canton’s director of public relations.

    Approximately 300 students applied for the Excelsior Scholarship and more than 150 benefited from the additional resources last year at SUNY Canton, he said.

    At SUNY Potsdam, the reception has also been warm. Director of Public Relations Alexandra J. Wilke said any bumps in the road since its implementation are to be expected.

    “As with any program of this magnitude, there are going to be growing pains and unexpected questions,” she said.


    Last year, Clarkson University saw a drop in total enrolled students by about 100. At the time, President Anthony G. Collins assumed that the drop was a result of the new scholarship. But the impact has since diminished.

    “With the Class entering Fall 2018, we have met all of our enrollment targets and will be welcoming later this month a bright cohort with an increase in average SATs, and a record number of women and minorities,” Kelly Chezum, Clarkson vice president for external relations, wrote in an email.

    An hour away from Clarkson, another private college has seen drops in its student body. Paul Smith’s College has seen nearly 200 fewer students in the past decade. Last fall, the total number of students enrolled came to 778. In 2014, there were 892.

    David Placey, Paul Smith’s College’s vice president for enrollment management, said the scholarship has had little effect on the school. What’s lowered the numbers he said, was focusing on enrolling in-state students, a problem Clarkson has faced as well.

    “We can’t keep depending on 50 percent of our students coming from New York,” Mr. Placey said.

    Of Clarkson University’s incoming class, 70 percent are usually from New York state. Of St. Lawrence University’s incoming class, however, only 34 percent were New York state residents. SLU also saw its largest incoming class ever last fall, 710 students.