Photo: Paul Buckowski, Albany Times Union
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ALBANY — The latest numbers are in: The state saw a 20 percent increase in Excelsior Scholarships in the program’s second year compared to its first.
Approximately 24,000 students at State University of New York and City University of New York schools are expected to receive the tuition grant at the completion of year two, 2018-19, a figure up from 20,000 scholarships in year one, according to data Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office released Tuesday.
The governor’s office notes a marked increase in the percentage of SUNY and CUNY full-time freshmen taking 15 credits or more per semester, the course load required to earn a bachelor’s degree in four years.
“This program is far more than free-tuition for New York’s future leaders — it is a college completion and degree attainment program,” Cuomo said. “We now know that with Excelsior, students stay on track academically to achieve their degree in two or four years, and completing college in this time frame translates into substantial savings for middle-class students and their families.”
But as most college financial aid programs requires students to take 12 credits per semester to qualify for funding, the Excelsior Scholarship’s 15-credit requirement remains a significant barrier to access, according policy experts.
Without addressing non-tuition costs for both low- and middle-income college students or softening its credit requirement, the Excelsior program will continue exclude the majority of SUNY and CUNY students who pay their way through school, according to Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director for the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City-based think tank.
“For college students who have other demands — the need to work while in school, the need to take care of their families — attending college for 30 credits a year can just be flat-out impossible,” Dvorkin said. “The Excelsior Scholarship is not going to really move the needle on completion if it doesn’t address non-tuition costs.”
The increase in scholarship recipients may be attributed, in part, to the three-year phase-in of income eligibility. For the 2019-20 academic year, New Yorkers with household incomes up to $125,000 became eligible, increasing from $110,000 in 2018-19 and $100,000 in 2017-18.
But fuller data indicating who is benefiting from the scholarship is needed to assess the program’s impact on degree completion, Dvorkin said.
The data indicate that the two-year on-time graduation rate of Excelsior students attending a SUNY and CUNY community college is currently twice as high as the typical graduation rate, according to Cuomo’s office.
Overall, more than 210,000 students will go to SUNY or CUNY schools tuition-free, including students receiving Excelsior Scholarship, TAP, Pell and other financial aid, according to the state’s data.
Some flexibility was built into the Excelsior program following criticisms over the program’s rigid credit requirements. Students may complete 30 credits over the course of year, including summer and January semesters, rather than in two semester, to receive funding. A student facing hardship also has the option to pause and restart the program.
However, students must reside in New York state for five years post-graduation, or they will be required to repay the scholarship funds.
Austin Ostro, a graduate student Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy at the University at Albany who serves as president of the SUNY Student Assembly and the student member on the SUNY Board of Trustees, said overall, the scholarship is expanding accessibility, particularly among middle-class students.
However, he said there is room to make the application process more accessible and better targeted toward students who face the most barriers.
Ostro also recommended that flexibility be added for students transferring from community colleges to four-year schools who often lose eligibility over lost credits.
“The bottom line is SUNY’s tuition is one of the most affordable in the country and that’s good, but most of the expense is on the associated cost side,” such as books, housing, food, and travel, he said. “We’d like to see an increased focus on that.”