Gov. Andrew Cuomo touts the state’s Excelsior Scholarship as one of his most significant accomplishments. But the limitations of the program, which in its first year provided free public-college tuition to middle-class families earning up to $100,000 a year (a salary cap that eventually will rise to $125,000), are showing.
The Center for an Urban Future, a public policy organization, finds that 20,086 students statewide received Excelsior Scholarships in 2017-18 out of 63,599 applicants who weren’t getting other tuition aid. Of the 43,513 students who were denied, a surprising 83 percent didn’t make the cut because they were unable to meet the requirement of taking 30 credits, a full course load, in two semesters.
The goals of providing SUNY and CUNY students with the chance to go to college tuition-free — and graduate in four years — are laudable and important. Progress is being made, but Excelsior’s requirements lead tens of thousands of students who qualify financially to lose out on assistance that could help them complete college.
The numbers confirm concerns that have existed from the beginning. The scholarship always was intended to cover the gap between existing programs (like the state’s Tuition Assistance Program and federal Pell Grants) and the total cost of tuition — for instance, $6,870 for this coming year at SUNY schools. And it always was geared to those who could complete college in four years.
But there should be ways to add flexibility. Perhaps, begin by including summer and intersession courses in the scholarship, so students could spread out their 30 credits and still benefit. Or, consider lowering the credit requirements for the scholarship slightly, particularly for community colleges, where students may need a bit more time. And state officials must ensure that SUNY and CUNY schools have the necessary resources to provide the classes students need to take a full credit load.
The Excelsior Scholarship is vital to make college available to as many New Yorkers as possible. Let’s make it work for more students.