Gotham Gazette Thu, 19 Jul 2018 04:10:49 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) LaGuardia College President Whipped Colleague Support for Cuomo Scholarship
Cuomo with Hillary Clinton, Gail Mellow, far right, & others (photo: Governor's Office)

Dr. Gail O. Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College, contacted fellow City University of New York (CUNY) presidents to gather statements in support of the proposed Excelsior Scholarship program on behalf of Governor Andrew Cuomo, before the proposal was passed and signed into law earlier this year.

Gotham Gazette previously reported that the governor’s office launched a push to bring CUNY leaders on board with the plan early this year, at the same time as the governor was pushing for greater oversight over the system and an investigation conducted by his appointed Inspector General was expanding. The role played by Mellow was rumored but not known. LaGuardia College was the site where Cuomo both announced Excelsior in January alongside Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and ceremonially signed the bill alongside Hillary Clinton in April.

A public records request filed by Gotham Gazette requesting Excelsior-related emails between Mellow and Cuomo administration officials was initially denied, and only partially granted upon appeal. The heavily redacted emails block out much of the correspondence. What they do show is Mellow sending Dan Fuller, Cuomo’s Assistant Secretary for Education, statements from Bronx Community College President Thomas Isekenegbe; Hostos Community College President David Gómez; Medgar Evers College President Rudy Crew; Brooklyn College President Michelle Anderson; York College President Marcia Keizs; and College of Staten Island President William Fritz.

The statements forwarded by Mellow would ultimately appear in a press release that the governor’s office put out in May, touting the support of CUNY and SUNY presidents for the scholarship. Portions of the emails that came immediately before or after the statements, or direct interactions between Mellow and Fuller, are largely redacted. In one example, the email from Mellow followed “Dear Dan,” followed by a black box, followed by Mellow signing off as “Gail,” with nothing visible in between.

It’s not uncommon for elected officials drafting and pushing legislative proposals to enlist and work with affected individuals, other officials, activists, and community members. However, a campaign to create a shift of the Excelsior Scholarship’s magnitude may be more likely to be centrally coordinated, perhaps by CUNY Chancellor James Milliken or his staff. It is unclear why Mellow took the lead in this case, and what she was telling her colleagues, many of whom were skeptical of aspects of the plan, on behalf of the governor’s office.

The scholarship will cover tuition for CUNY and State University of New York (SUNY) students from households with incomes up to $125,000 a year by 2019. The fact that it would cover tuition alone, after all other grants and scholarships have been applied, and requires students to finish on time and live in the state for a period after graduation has drawn criticism from some students, activists, and educators.

The exchanges have been carefully redacted so that the emails between Mellow and Fuller contain only the statements that Mellow is sending, which became public, along with brief notes like “Here is another quote.” The subject lines are similar; examples include “FW: quote for NY’s Excelsior scholarship,” “Additional quote,” and “RE: another one more & …” This seems to indicate that Fuller was requesting additional quotes.

In an emailed statement, Elizabeth Streich, a spokesperson for LaGuardia, said that “based on [Mellow’s] national advocacy for free college, when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the Excelsior Scholarship, she jumped right in to increase public awareness about it. She worked with fellow CUNY College presidents to help increase understanding, and build support for Excelsior.”

Streich did not detail what Mellow had told the other presidents to elicit their responses, nor did she give details of or characterize Mellow’s conversations with Fuller or other members of the Cuomo administration. Fuller did not return requests for comment. Emails to spokespeople for the governor were not answered.

CUNY colleges and affiliated nonprofits continue to be the subjects of a wide-ranging state Inspector General investigation into their structure and financial operations. The investigation released a preliminary report in November, and continued to expand early this year, at the same time as the governor’s office was seeking support for Excelsior and Cuomo was calling for additional inspector generals – which he would appoint – to oversee CUNY and SUNY, as well as new taxes on their affiliated nonprofits. These proposals were not ultimately enacted.

Shown the email exchanges, John Kaehny, the executive director of good government group Reinvent Albany, said the governor and Mellow should release unredacted emails “to lay to rest public concerns about CUNY administrators being pressured to make supportive statements about the governor's Excelsior Scholarship program. We saw redacted emails that raised more questions than they answered.”

One email in the chain involves Anthony Bernal, an aide to Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of former Vice President Joe Biden and a professor at Northern Virginia Community College. Bernal is responding to an email Mellow is copied on, in which Fuller has sent a draft of a statement that the governor’s office wants to attribute to Jill Biden in support of the proposal. Mellow is described as “[working] closely with Dr. Biden on these important issues.” The statement does not appear to have been ultimately used by the governor’s office.

by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette

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LaGuardia College President Whipped Colleague Support for Cuomo Scholarship Wed, 26 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
The Excelsior Scholarship’s Academic Requirements Are Far Too High excelsior scholarship academic

Gov. Cuomo announcing Excelsior (Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

In January 2014, Kellyn C. was 49 and had been recently laid off from a human resources position. “You need a college degree to remain competitive,” she said. She enrolled as a first-time freshman at CUNY Medgar Evers College (MEC) in Brooklyn. Three and a half years later, she reports, “I’m doing well. I’m applying myself and forging ahead.” She has 96 credits, a GPA above 3.0, and is on track to graduate in December 2017 or January 2018—all significant accomplishments at MEC, a comprehensive institution offering both associate and bachelor’s degrees.  

The Excelsior Scholarship, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new free college tuition program, was of immediate interest to Kellyn given her upcoming $3,265 tuition bill for Fall 2017 and an income that is just above the thresholds to qualify for federal Pell grants or New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).  “I’m trying to pursue my degree and there should be something for me,” she said. Yet despite being a highly capable student, Kellyn will not be eligible for Excelsior because of the scholarship’s credit accumulation requirements, which are set at elite levels that she just misses.   

Governor Cuomo announced the Excelsior Scholarship with much fanfare in January 2017 at LaGuardia Community College. Bernie Sanders, standing at his side, touted it as “a revolutionary idea for higher education.” When the bill was signed into law, Cuomo returned to LaGuardia with Hillary Clinton heralding the program as a “beacon of hope” to New Yorkers.    

The Scholarship makes CUNY and SUNY tuition-free for students with adjusted gross family incomes of less than $100,000, with the maximum income increasing to $110,000 in 2018 and to $125,000 in 2019.  The program is a last-dollar scholarship, which means that the award fills tuition gaps after other federal and state aid have been drawn down. Excelsior offers no additional support to low-income students who already receive enough Pell and TAP aid to cover tuition and fees but often struggle with transportation, rent, and books. Cuomo’s administration has acknowledged as much, describing Excelsior at public events and in television commercials as for “middle-class families.”

Kellyn, while financially eligible for Excelsior with an adjusted gross income of well below the $100,000 threshold, is not academically eligible for the scholarship because she doesn’t meet the requirement of having earned 30 or more credits per year—or 90 or more credits total—by January 2017, the end of her third year in college, even though she’s been picking up credits this summer so that she can graduate in the winter, four years from when she started. “I don’t know where they come up with the 90 credits,” she said, having earned a few credits short of the 90 in her first three years. She is rightfully proud that she’s on track to graduate in four years. If she had been eligible for Excelsior—and she’s still planning to petition for eligibility—getting it “would mean the world to me,” she said.   

Of New York State’s 605,000 CUNY and SUNY students, SUNY estimates that only 31,300 students will be eligible for Excelsior, representing 5.2% of all CUNY and SUNY students. The application deadline is Friday, July 21, and if more students apply and are eligible than funds are available in the $87 million earmark, a lottery will be conducted to award the scholarship.  

A key reason for the limited projected eligibility estimate is that few CUNY and SUNY students meet the academic criteria of completing 30 credits a year. The percentages of full-time students at three CUNY colleges—Brooklyn College, City College of New York, and York College—who earned 30 or more credits during the 2014-2015 academic year are 31.6% at Brooklyn, 27.4% at CCNY, and 22.8%. at York. The percentages of students meeting the 30 or more credits threshold at CUNY’s community colleges are lower. At Bronx Community College, 11.5% of students met the threshold, and at LaGuardia, 20.2% of students, to cite just two.

At LaGuardia, where Governor Cuomo twice announced the Excelsior Scholarship, only 195 of the 2,480 students who started as full-time students in Fall 2013 graduated within two years and would have met the academic requirements to receive Excelsior during a junior year at another CUNY or SUNY institution. As students get to the sophomore, junior, and senior years and fall off meeting Excelsior’s credit accumulation requirements, Excelsior will become at many campuses an honors scholarship for the academically elite students.

To the extent that there will be students benefitting from Excelsior, they are likely to disproportionately be ones who attend the institutions with the highest four-year graduation rates, like SUNY Binghamton (66.1%) and SUNY Albany (53.0%), rather than ones who attend the institutions with the lowest rates and the rates that arguably most need public policies to support their advancement.  

The regulations adopted by New York State’s Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC) in late May outline a number of exceptions to the credit accumulation requirements, allowing interruptions of study “due to circumstances as determined by the corporation, including but not limited to, death of a family member, medical leave, military service, service in the Peace Corps or parental leave.” The “including but not limited to” phrasing allows HESC and colleges to account for unusual circumstances but does not explicitly create exceptions for the primary reasons that students fall behind or take semesters off: academic under-preparation for college-level work; work and life circumstances; and institutional factors, like poor advising, limited course offerings, and subpar faculty.   

The regulations further state that students who fall off track and become ineligible for future Excelsior awards will owe one semester of their Excelsior Scholarships back to their colleges. The HESC website reads: “If you fail to complete 30 credits over a 365-day period, the Excelsior Scholarship will cover your first term; however, you will be responsible for the tuition liability for your second term.”

The financial reality of having to pay for a prior completed semester previously thought to have been free and having to pay for future semesters after having gone to college tuition-free may influence initial Excelsior beneficiaries to dropout. Students who miss the credit accumulation cutoffs may start seeing themselves as not made out for college. Falling off the Excelsior cliff is likely to be financially and emotionally devastating to the college success of a significant number of initial Excelsior recipients.

Excelsior’s payback requirement is the most harmful aspect of the program, and it is what is most wrong with the program. The students who self-finance Excelsior repayments and future tuition charges in a valiant effort to earn degrees may find themselves working too many hours to meet their financial obligations to be academically successful.  

As Excelsior plays itself out, the scholarship is likely to impact four-year graduation rates positively as students who can stay on track will be more motivated to cross the finish line in four years. Achieving higher four-year graduation rates, however, may be at the cost of decreases rather than increases in the retention of students from freshman to sophomore year, as students who lose Excelsior eligibility drop out. This is not what anyone intended of the revolutionary initiative proclaimed by Senator Sanders.  Chano LaBoy, a Senior Trainer and College Access Counselor at the Options program at Goddard Riverside Community Center in New York City, said about Excelsior’s credit accumulation terms, “I’m a little wary as to how it’s going to play out with students who come up short on credits. I’m anxious.”  

To address the problems of Excelsior, the Governor and Legislature should eliminate the payback requirement and adjust the credit accumulation requirement to 25 credits per year, acknowledging that a four-year graduation timeline and yearly completion of 30 credits is way too ambitious at many SUNY and CUNY colleges. The requirement that recipients live and work in New York State for the same number of years that they received the scholarship also should be eliminated, as many critics have argued.  

In announcing Excelsior, Governor Cuomo got the big idea right. “Today, college is what high school was—it should always be an option even if you can’t afford it,” he proclaimed, and indeed universal college should be the new universal high school, but until the Governor, the State Legislature, and HESC come together to correct the weaknesses of Excelsior, New York State’s free college program is a bait into a trap for students who attend campuses where students hardly ever earn 30 credits a year.   Righting Excelsior and making free college freer will require more funding so policy changes may take some time, but for now, New York Excelsior Scholarship is a program for freshmen and academically elite students rather than a revolutionary free college program.

Eric Neutuch is a new doctoral student at Northeastern University and an education evaluation consultant.

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The Excelsior Scholarship’s Academic Requirements Are Far Too High Thu, 20 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
While Calling for CUNY Investigations, Cuomo Sought Endorsements from College Presidents Cuomo Sanders Excelsior 
(photo: Kevin Coughlin/Governor’s Office)

Public university administrators and college presidents enthusiastically supporting a governor’s proposal to fund tuition for potential students is a situation that would normally invite little scrutiny.

That picture becomes murkier when the university’s management has been a frequent target of that governor; is the focus of an expanding investigation conducted by the state’s inspector general, who reports to the secretary to the governor; and the governor publicly calls for greater oversight of the university system while seeking its top officials’ endorsements of his tuition subsidy proposal.

This describes the state of affairs for the state-controlled City University of New York (CUNY), which has been in the crosshairs as a former City College president and affiliated foundation are facing a federal probe and a state investigation targeting university-wide financial practices is underway.

The latter is spearheaded by Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott, who served as Assistant Attorney General under then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo before he was elected governor in 2010. Cuomo, a Democrat, appointed Scott to her current post in 2013, after she had served as acting Inspector General for a year. Cuomo was reelected in 2014.

After unveiling it in January alongside Senator Bernie Sanders, Cuomo spent months pushing his Excelsior Scholarship program, which would make CUNY and State University of New York (SUNY) tuition-free for many students from middle-class families. The scholarship was passed as part of a state budget deal in early April and signed that same month to great fanfare, with Cuomo extolled by Hillary Clinton.

In between, Cuomo also outlined his 2017 government ethics agenda, which included greater oversight of the CUNY and SUNY systems, and sought the endorsements of Excelsior by top CUNY and SUNY officials, including all the college presidents. As the governor negotiated with legislative leaders, Cuomo’s office announced in a March press release that nearly every CUNY or SUNY president was backing the plan.

The I.G. investigation began in October 2016 after CUNY board Chair William Thompson Jr. sent a letter to Inspector General Scott following revelations about deposed City College president Lisa Coico’s misuse of funds from the affiliated 21st Century Foundation, a nonprofit.

Earlier this month, Mr. Thompson, a Cuomo ally, said on City & State’s Slant podcast’s Slant podcast that he has thus far met with Scott about a half-dozen times, and stated that the board was looking “top-to-bottom,” at the makeup of the faculty and administration. Thompson did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

In November, Scott’s office took the unusual step of releasing its preliminary report; it detailed investigators’ discoveries that discretionary presidential funds were being used inappropriately, oversight was lax, and significant resources were being utilized to pay for “duplicative” government lobbying.

Following the release, the governor said in a statement that he was “directing the CUNY Board to review the entire senior management at CUNY,” and indicated that he intended to appoint “separate Inspector Generals for both SUNY and CUNY” who would investigate wrongdoing, including through reviewing contracts and hiring. The system saw high-level officials depart for other posts.

Then, in his Fiscal Year 2018 Executive Budget, issued in January, Cuomo included a proposal to compel CUNY to collect from each affiliated organization and nonprofit 10 percent of its annual revenue for use in “tuition assistance initiatives.” The idea swiftly drew a letter from the presidents and chairs of the 11 largest foundations to the CUNY trustees, insinuating that the measure was at best a threat to the foundations’ ability to raise money and at worst illegal, and asking them to make their opposition known. Ultimately, the measure did not make it into the adopted budget, finalized in April.

The governor also called for the state I.G. to have expanded oversight over the university, which was likewise not found in the final budget.

At the same time, the governor’s office was working behind the scenes to whip up support for the governor’s headline-generating proposal, reaching out to members of the public universities and dispatching staffers to campuses to sell presidents on the measure.

A spokesperson for the governor insisted it was only natural for university officials and college presidents to back a proposal like Excelsior, but did not answer questions about whether the governor still intended to appoint university-specific inspectors. The spokesperson would not characterize conversations between CUNY administrators and executive staff beyond stating that they were policy discussions, but called concerns raised around the push for endorsements’ relationship with the push for oversight “insane” and “conspiracy theories.”

“Anyone pretending a link exists between the implementation of this initiative and an independent inquiry by the inspector general is both wildly misinformed and delusional,” said Abbey Fashouer, the Cuomo spokesperson, though Gotham Gazette had stressed that no specific link was being alleged and only posed questions about the timing of the endorsement overtures coinciding with calls for greater oversight and investigations.

Emails obtained by Gotham Gazette through the Freedom of Information Law indicate that the governor’s staff was contacting CUNY presidents in February to request statements in support of the Excelsior program. Ultimately, except for the presidents of Baruch College and Manhattan Community College, all CUNY college presidents issued statements supporting the proposal, released all together in the mid-March announcement from the governor’s office that touted “statewide Support from SUNY and CUNY Leadership.”

Asked about communication between the Inspector General’s office and each of the CUNY presidents, a spokesperson for the I.G.’s office said the office would not comment on an ongoing investigation.

In a January email, Kingsborough Community College president Farley Herzek thanked the governor’s Brooklyn regional representative, Drew Gabriel, for visiting the campus. “I appreciate being able to discuss the Governor’s proposed Excelsior opportunity. We deeply appreciate every opportunity there is to mitigate the financial challenges of attending college and the Governor’s plan does just that,” Herzek wrote.

He also attached a document with information on 24 different types of scholarship programs in California, and wrote that families of 40% of his students came from households with incomes less than $20,000 per year; the students had, in focus groups, said that non-tuition costs were their “greatest stressors,” and often had to attend school and work at the same time.

“Since the proposed Excelsior Scholarship is a ‘last dollar’ type of scholarship and students are required to be enrolled in 15 credits or more we may be excluding a very large and needy population of New Yorkers,” he wrote (the community college course-load requirement is lower than that for the four-year colleges), and offered to assist the governor in “moving his Excelsior Scholarship proposal forward.”

Herzek’s positive statements on the proposal and access to higher education generally, and his statistic about the percentage of low-income students attending his college, appear verbatim in his endorsement from the governor’s press release. His concerns about the program’s effectiveness were not included. Herzek did not respond to a request for comment from Gotham Gazette.

“Oversight of the Executive Branch should not be done by the Executive Branch,” said Reinvent Albany Executive Director John Kaehny, referring to a university whose board is controlled by the governor being investigated by an office headed by a Cuomo appointee. Kaehny also called it inappropriate for the governor to enlist CUNY administrators’ help to push a signature proposal. The concurrent timing of Cuomo's public push for oversight and private push for endorsements raises questions about the motivations provoking those endorsements of Excelsior.

Spokespeople for both the inspector general’s office and the governor’s office vigorously insisted that the I.G. is fully independent from any executive influence and a spokesperson for Cuomo argued that there was nothing inappropriate about the governor’s dual efforts: calling for more oversight of the university systems while seeking their leaders’ backing for his top 2017 proposal.

When fully phased-in, Excelsior will cover tuition to CUNY and the SUNY for students from households making up to $125,000 a year in 2019, provided they meet certain requirements. These include the stipulation that students take at least 30 credits per academic year and remain in the state after graduation for a period equaling the length of time they received the scholarship.

The program is a “last dollar” approach, meaning that it will cover the remaining tuition balance after all other scholarships and grants have been applied, and does not contribute anything towards non-tuition costs like books and housing, which often form the majority of student costs given that CUNY and SUNY already have relatively low tuition. It is meant to complement programs already in place to help students from the lowest-income families.

The stringent requirements have provoked criticism from many advocates, academics, and editorial boards, who have called it insufficient, onerous, and more. Some have also pointed out that at current funding levels, CUNY schools will likely be overwhelmed by the expected uptick in enrollment provoked by the scholarship.

Assemblymember Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the Committee on Higher Education, said that funds would have been better allocated to operating aid for CUNY, but did not think there was anything inappropriate about the governor requesting support from members of the system.

“The flip side of that is, should there be no communication between the governor and the city university while there are some particular things under review?” she said, and referenced the governor’s appointment of state budget director Robert Mujica to the CUNY board, a move she called “aggressive and inappropriate,” as a bigger problem.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office dismissed critics of the proposal as mostly “private universities” upset that they “weren’t included” in Excelsior.

In fact, in addition to the faculty union, skeptics of the program have included the CUNY Graduate Center’s newspaper, the president of the SUNY Student Assembly, and SUNY’s own trustees; an academic program coordinator at CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College offered a point-by-point evisceration of the scholarship in an op-ed for Inside Higher Ed. Several state legislators sought significant changes to Excelsior that did not occur before the program was passed. In a phone conversation, Professor Katherine Conway, chair of the CUNY Faculty Senate, said the plan “is not going to do anything for [the poorest of students.]”

To be fair, Cuomo never said it would -- he instead billed Excelsior as “tuition-free for the middle class,” part of his Middle Class Recovery Act that he framed as his direct response to the anxiety shown in the 2016 presidential election. But, many critics point out that Cuomo made a mistake in making it clear he was not interested in additional help for the state’s neediest students, or potential students, who often struggle, don’t graduate, or don’t enroll because of non-tuition costs.

Asked if the body she chairs had been privy to any conversations between the governor’s staff and CUNY administrators, Conway, the chair of the faculty senate, said it had not, but added that “it isn’t in our interest to confront the governor.”

Spokespeople for both the Inspector General and the governor insisted that the investigation, given its focus, could not have had any bearing on CUNY leaders’ decisions to enthusiastically back a pressing agenda item.

“It's an ongoing investigation and the scope has been laid out publicly,” said the spokesperson for the Inspector General’s office.

A spokesperson for the CUNY system said in an email that he was not aware of any conversations between a member of the governor’s staff and a CUNY president or administrator that had touched on the ongoing investigation. In relation to internal conversations surrounding the program, he wrote that the Chancellor’s office “has been in continuous communication with college presidents and state officials, including at the Higher Education Services Corporation, about details of the Excelsior Scholarship program that will be addressed in the regulations to be issued later this month.”

But it was not simply the ongoing I.G. CUNY probe, but that the governor was publicly calling for more investigation and oversight of CUNY administration that may have added pressure to CUNY administrators and presidents to endorse the governor’s signature 2017 proposal. Neither Cuomo’s office nor the offices of CUNY presidents’ nor the CUNY Chancellor’s office would comment on this relationship.

Sources have indicated that with CUNY Chancellor James Milliken initially somewhat lukewarm to the proposal, LaGuardia Community College President Dr. Gail Mellow acted as a primary influencer in coaxing some of her CUNY colleagues to support Excelsior, helping get them to “yes” on endorsements. Both Milliken and Mellow declined to comment on the matter. Cuomo held both the Excelsior launch and celebratory bill-signing events at LaGuardia Community College.

Government observers and watchdog groups have called for oversight of the city and state university systems to be expanded under the state Comptroller, not the Inspector General, including certain contract oversight powers that were stripped by Cuomo and the Legislature in 2011.

In an email, Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said that his organization “believes that independent oversight by the Comptroller and Attorney General is far more effective than Inspector Generals appointed and controlled by the governor.”

by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

While Calling for CUNY Investigations, Cuomo Sought Endorsements from College Presidents Sun, 11 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000