Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/951 Wed, 16 Oct 2019 12:03:59 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Johnson Unveils Plan to Address Hunger and Food Inequity https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8715-johnson-unveils-plan-to-address-hunger-and-food-inequity https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8715-johnson-unveils-plan-to-address-hunger-and-food-inequity 48433082297 f0af3fb88d z

Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on Thursday announced a plan to address hunger and the lack of equitable access to fresh food in New York City, laying out a package of legislative proposals that the Council will consider over the next year.

Food insecurity — the absence of or insufficient access to affordable, nutritious food  — affected nearly 1 million New Yorkers as of 2017, according to a new City Council report that Johnson released at Cypress Elementary School in East New York. The school is the first in Brooklyn that has a greenhouse and incorporates nutrition education into the curriculum.

The Council’s report, titled “Growing Food Equity in New York City,” found that food insecurity particularly affects individuals living in poverty, seniors, and people of color, and it pervades higher education — 48% of students at City University of New York said they had experienced food insecurity in the last month.

Johnson, a Democrat who is exploring a run for mayor in 2021, outlined measures that would address neighborhood inequities in access to healthy food through improvements in food governance, reducing food waste, promoting healthy school lunches and nutritional education, and expanding urban agriculture.  

The proposals include the creation of a citywide food plan, a push to help seniors receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (also known as food stamps), and increased city funding for coupons called Health Bucks, which are provided to low-income New Yorkers to buy fresh food at any city farmers market.

“Adequate access to nutritious food is a human right,” Johnson said. “This principle isn’t just for developing countries. It’s something we must follow right here in New York City, one of the richest cities in the world.”

The food equity plan is the latest big policy announcement that Johnson has made since becoming speaker. In March, Johnson proposed a plan for municipal control of the city’s subways and buses, followed in May by a sweeping criminal justice reform agenda. 

As part of the food equity plan, the Council will work to expand existing programs that have already been successful such as Health Bucks, nutrition programs in schools, and lunches cooked from scratch at public schools. One bill would require that schools send information about summer meals programs to families, and another would create an Office of Urban Agriculture that would focus on incorporating city farming and gardening into city planning.

The Council and the Department of City Planning will also work to expand the number of neighborhoods eligible to receive the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) zoning bonus. FRESH offers financial assistance and zoning incentives to grocery stores that provide affordable and fresh food in communities that lack access to nutritional food.

Johnson said the City Council will also advocate at the state and federal level to protect and expand access to SNAP benefits. In June, the Trump administration announced plans to change SNAP eligibility requirements. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that nearly 3 million people would lose their food assistance as a result. Johnson said the Trump administration’s “relentless attacks” on SNAP are an enormous threat to the city as food stamps generate up to $5.3 billion in economic activity and the president’s “fear-mongering” has discouraged some who worry they would lose their immigration status.

“Shame on the federal government for using food as a weapon to disenfranchise vulnerable communities,” Johnson said. “Shame on the Trump administration for denying the rights of food to families and seniors while heavily subsidizing corporate interest.”

The speaker was joined on stage by Council Member Rafael Espinal, a Democrat who represents East New York. Espinal noted that 16% of New Yorkers go to bed hungry every night, and 20% of those city residents live in Brooklyn. The Council member has helped pass legislation that set up the city’s first website dedicated to urban agriculture and authored a bill with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams to create a comprehensive urban agriculture plan.

Espinal spoke of his own experiences with food insecurity growing up in East New York. He said healthy food was hard to come by, but his father’s garden helped reduce the number of times his family had to drive for miles to buy fruits and vegetables.

“I grew up learning about soil, harvesting and maintaining produce, eating healthy food, and how to become a healthy adult,” he said. “The majority of kids across New York do not have the same opportunity, and to this day most communities are deprived of this kind of experience.”

Another piece of legislation the council will consider would improve and codify the Office of Food Policy, which the speaker said has been under-resourced. Getting New Yorkers more accessible, healthy food options should be one of the city’s top priorities, Johnson said.

“What I really want to see, and what’s at the heart of the food justice movement, is for all of our communities to have greater control over their food options,” Johnson said. “Food is power. We feel it when we eat it. We feel it when we feed our children. We want that power in the hands of our communities.”

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by Samantha Handler, Gotham Gazette
     

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Johnson Unveils Plan to Address Hunger and Food Inequity Thu, 01 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
ThriveNYC to Implement New Performance Tracking System Focused on Outcomes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8645-thrivenyc-to-implement-new-performance-tracking-system https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8645-thrivenyc-to-implement-new-performance-tracking-system first lady chirlane mcray deputy mayors comm

Chirlane McCray (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Following repeated criticism about spending hundreds of millions of dollars with unclear outcomes, ThriveNYC, First Lady Chirlane McCray’s signature mental health initiative, is now publishing nearly 100 metrics to track the performance of dozens of programs that have been launched in the last three years.

The metrics, provided to Gotham Gazette just before their public launch, will show outcomes of programs, not just their reach or the city’s investment into them as has been the case since the inception of ThriveNYC.

Over the last few months, ThriveNYC partnered with the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance and various city agencies to create 94 performance indicators across the board, and will begin to publish that data on its website starting this fall, with varying timelines depending on individual initiatives.

ThriveNYC will publicly post a detailed description of each initiative, the agency handling the program, and the indicators associated with it. For instance, for NYC Well, the mental health phone helpline run by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, ThriveNYC will measure the percentage of callers who say they are satisfied by its services. To measure the Mental Health First Aid training program, the office will look at the percentage of people that say they shared or used the training they received. 

“Now that the programs are implemented and even the ones that are about to launch, we’re putting up the metrics that we’re going to be looking at to see what kind of effect they’re having,” said Susan Herman, ThriveNYC’s director since February, in a phone interview on Thursday. 

Inaugurated in 2015, ThriveNYC was meant as a paradigm shift in how the city handles mental health issues, seeking to tear down stigma around getting mental health care, targeting services at New Yorkers who cannot afford the cost of care or have been long underserved, and ensuring that people of all backgrounds are more attuned to their own mental health needs, as well as those of their friends, family, and colleagues.

With $850 million pledged over four years, the overarching initiative, called a mental health “roadmap,” sought to bring together a range of services, with more than 50 programs (including some that were already running) across a dozen-odd city agencies. McCray has been the face of the program, touting its gospel across the city and in appearances, both with and without Mayor Bill de Blasio, across the country.

But while many have praised the program’s goals, the accountability involved has been vague. In April 2018, McCray said in an interview on the Max & Murphy podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits that Thrive would begin a “resetting” phase, including by bringing on its first executive director and tracking more metrics for the various programs. Gotham Gazette reported soon after that many of the ThriveNYC goals were difficult to track and that the budget was opaque.

By February of this year, a second reset began. ThriveNYC became a standalone office housed under the mayor’s office and Susan Herman, a former NYPD deputy commissioner, was named its director and senior advisor to the mayor, with the task of better organizing the effort and ensuring that it had the right structures in place. But several news reports, first in Politico New York and then The New York Times, further pointed out that ThriveNYC was struggling to track and show results despite having spent nearly $600 million.

In March, the New York City Council convened an oversight hearing where they tried to hold McCray and Herman’s feet to the fire, demanding to know if the city was getting the bang for its buck. 

Those answers are now forthcoming, the city says. 

Herman’s first task when she took over ThriveNYC, she said in the interview, was to clarify to the public the scope of ThriveNYC and the services provided under its umbrella. She denied that the metrics were created in response to the criticism the program faced, saying that they couldn’t be established earlier since there was no data to assess and that the various initiatives had to first be up and running.

“First of all we’re measuring the right things at the right time. This is when you start measuring outcomes, when you are fully implemented,” she said. “And I think most researchers would tell you, ‘Yeah this is just exactly when you should be doing exactly what you’re doing.’ And secondly, it’s very important to know that we are also engaged in formal evaluations, many of which are up and running and have been up and running, some of them for over a year, some of them two years, some of them just launched, some of them still to come but we have worked with outside researchers for years to do formal evaluations of Thrive programs and we’ll continue to do that.” 

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, echoed Herman in a separate interview. “In this kind of work there are generally two kinds of measures for programs and program success: there’s outputs and outcomes,” he said. “Outputs tend to be process-y, like how many meetings did you do, how many contacts, and those are really useful for management. In the end, whether you’re the government or general public, it’s the outcomes that matter. And they’re both more important and usually the trickier thing to measure.”

While McCray and de Blasio have talked extensively about the importance and impact of ThriveNYC, the measures have almost all been outputs, as Jacobson put it, with McCray admitting at the recent Council oversight hearing that limited systems were in place to even try, difficult as it may be, to track outcomes for individuals serviced by Thrive programs.

With the next fiscal year, FY 2020, beginning on Monday, ThriveNYC will also launch new programs, with plans to spend nearly $243 million overall through the course of the year. These programs are expected to have metrics attached, with reports issued quarterly, semi-annually, and annually, depending on the data gathered.

Some are already evident and showing impact. For instance, according to ThriveNYC, 48% of young children receiving mental health treatment for early childhood trauma at seven clinics run by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene have shown signs of improvement. At 25 Department for the Aging senior centers with on-site mental health clinicians, 56% of seniors receiving treatment have shown improvement in depression symptoms and 65% have shown improvement in anxiety symptoms.

Even the host of new metrics are an “interim” phase, Herman said, which will eventually be followed by broader evaluations of programmatic effects on specific populations -- school students, for example -- and then a holistic review of ThriveNYC’s effect on the entire city. 

Herman couldn’t explain why the city had failed to measure the impact of many of the programs involved that had existed before ThriveNYC, though she said these had not been repackaged but instead enhanced under the de Blasio administration.

“Some of these programs, could some of them have had outcome measures earlier? Perhaps,” she said, “but this is a way of looking at Thrive in total...It’s an important distinction. Because really what people are asking is what’s the impact of Thrive? And at this point what we should be looking at is the impact of each of the initiatives. It’s only later still that we can look at the impact of Thrive on larger populations and eventually on New York as a whole.” 

Jacobson said, “You can start to think about this for any program but you can’t do it until you get some historical data...It couldn’t have been on day one.” 

Part of the failure to show qualitative and quantitative results, Herman said, is because of the nature of ThriveNYC. Akin to other long-term public health programs, it’s hard to gauge in the span of a mayoralty.

“It’s comparable frankly to universal pre-K where you can see the immediate result, you can see that kids are in school, families are happier but, like Headstart, you won’t know the impact on those children’s lives for many years to come,” she said. “And then you see it and it’s very clear. Just like smoking bans, just like trans fats bans, just like universal pre-k. You’re gonna have an impact that you won’t see for years.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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ThriveNYC to Implement New Performance Tracking System Focused on Outcomes Fri, 28 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
‘Free College’ at One SUNY School Shows ‘Excelsior’ Progress and Problems https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8517-free-college-at-one-suny-school-shows-excelsior-progress-and-problems https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8517-free-college-at-one-suny-school-shows-excelsior-progress-and-problems gov cuomo excelsior

(photo: governor's office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship is increasing credit accumulation and college retention rates, but the program still needs to meet more students where they are at.

In 2017, Governor Cuomo embraced the “free college” movement championed by Senator Bernie Sanders and created New York State’s Excelsior Scholarship. Under Excelsior, students from families with annual incomes below $110,000—and increasing to $125,000 in fall 2019—can go to State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY) schools tuition-free.

Excelsior is a “last dollar” scholarship program that pays tuition amounts for full-time students that are not already covered by the federal Pell program and New York State’s nearly $1 billion Tuition Assistance Program. This is one factor that has kept the scholarship’s scale relatively small, covering just 3.2% of SUNY and CUNY students, according to a Center for an Urban Future report on Excelsior’s first year.

In fall 2017, approximately 400 of the 26,000 students at SUNY Suffolk County Community College on Long Island (SCCC) received Excelsior, according to SCCC data that was provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Excelsior awards funds of up to the full cost of tuition, which at SCCC was $2,385 per semester in 2017-2018, or $4,770 per year.

Of SCCC’s 400 or so Excelsior recipients, 300 were first-year freshman students, and 161 of those students, or 53.7%, earned 30 or more credits during their freshman years. Having 30 or more credits at the end of freshman year is a requirement for maintaining Excelsior and is a milestone on the way to graduating in two-years.  

SCCC does not report the rate at which its general population of students earn 30 or more credits in their freshman year, yet other public institutions do. For instance, at CUNY, 10.7% of associate degree full-time freshman students earn 30 or more credits as freshmen.

The rate at which the SCCC general population earns 30 or more credits may exceed the CUNY rate by several percentage points, but not by a multiple of two or more given that SCCC's two-year graduation rate of is very similar to the two-year graduation rate for CUNY associate degree students of 7.7%.

Within this context, the 53.7% rate at which SCCC Excelsior recipients earned 30 or more credits extraordinary.   

The Excelsior regulations strongly incentivize students toward meeting the 30-credit milestone.

First, students who earn the 30 or more credits annually get to maintain the scholarship. Second, those who fail to meet the threshold must pay back one semester of their Excelsior awards. This means that bills of up to $2,385 faced SCCC Excelsior freshmen who did not meet the 30-credit threshold and did not present a special circumstance warranting an exception, like a parent’s death, or have earned credits from high school dual enrollment programs to help lift them over the 30 credit benchmark.

The punitive nature of the regulations, which many see as unfair, is a unique feature of New York State’s “free college” program, and it may play a significant a role in incentivizing students to accumulate credits at rates faster than they would otherwise.    

The credit accumulation results were impressive, but what were Excelsior’s effects on retention?

As one would imagine, the retention outcomes are different for students who earned 30 or more credits from those who did not. Of the 161 students who earned 30 or more credits, 91.3%—or almost all—continued at SCCC as sophomores.

Of the 139 students who fell short of the 30 credits, 64.7% re-enrolled for their sophomore years. These students, unless they were successful in appealing to the Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC) for continued Excelsior eligibility or had banked dual enrollment credits, started paying tuition and had to pay back one semester of their Excelsior awards, which together could total nearly $5,000.

Overall, of the 300 Excelsior freshmen, 237 of them, comprising 79.0% of the group, returned to SCCC for their sophomore years. This is about ten percentage points higher than the 69% rate at which first-time, full-time SCCC freshmen returned for their sophomore years during a recent pre-Excelsior year at SCCC.  

Data on Excelsior is Limited
The retention data from SCCC is consistent with overall SUNY and CUNY data. In January, SUNY officials reported a retention rate for SUNY’s Excelsior Scholarship students of 75.7%, compared to 67.9% for SUNY non-Excelsior students. Also in January, CUNY reported a retention rate of 79% for Excelsior students, as compared to 67.4% for non-Excelsior recipients. 

Detailed data from across the state on Excelsior students’ credit accumulation rates and the interplays between credit accumulation, retention, the size of students’ Excelsior awards, and other variables, like race and ethnicity, has not been made available by HESC, which administers Excelsior.

In late January, Acting HESC President Dr. Guillermo Linares testified before a joint legislative hearing in Albany but ducked questions asking for the rates at which Excelsior students have been meeting the 30-credit benchmark. When Assemblymember Deborah Glick asked about students who have “fallen off of receiving Excelsior,” Linares said quixotically, “We’re not aware of any that have not received.”

Senator Toby Ann Stavisky asked directly whether “students [have] failed to fill the 30-credit,” and Linares said only, “There are very positive signs.” When Stavisky followed-up and specifically requested the “percentage that have failed to complete the 30-credit requirement,” Linares stammered back, “It’s very promising.”

HESC has replied to FOIA requests that I have made by saying that they need more time to respond. The sooner they can, the better. More data would help inform a policy debate on how Excelsior can be improved for the future and how “free college” programs should be designed in other states.

Drew Biondo, SCCC’s Director of Communications, said in a brief statement that Excelsior's full "benefit to our students, while showing early successes, will not be known for several more years."

Two Excelsior Policies that Need to Be Changed
As the conversation about Excelsior continues, serious consideration should be given to lowering the annual credit accumulation requirement to 27 credits.

If the standard was 27 credits rather than 30 credits, a significant number of additional SCCC Excelsior freshman would have earned enough credits to have met Excelsior’s benchmark.  

As it stands now, Governor Cuomo’s touting of Excelsior’s success is like an algebra teacher congratulating him/herself on 53.7% of his students passing an exam; there’s nothing in such as a case to warrant self-congratulations.

A second change that should be considered is the provision of funds to support free summer enrollments. At SCCC, 62 of the 161 students (38.5%) who met the 30-credit threshold took at least one summer class that was paid for out of their own pockets. This is a significant percentage of students enrolling in summer classes. Consideration should be given to modifying Excelsior so that students who earn 24 or more credits during the regular academic year receive additional funds to take a summer class for free.

Excelsior’s scale is currently limited, costing the state $92 million during the last fiscal year, compared to the nearly $1 billion size of the TAP program. As a program that is still small (even if Cuomo’s rhetoric is anything but), now is the time consider improvements before Excelsior’s design choices become too entrenched.

In considering policy changes, their implications for how Excelsior funds are divided between SUNY and CUNY students and institutions should be evaluated.

At present, SUNY students and institutions benefit from Excelsior funds to a much greater degree than do CUNY students and institutions. According to an August 2018 report from the New York City-based Center for an Urban Future (CUF) based on HESC data, 20.7% of Excelsior’s 2017-2018 recipients attended CUNY institutions despite CUNY students comprising 38% of the state’s undergraduate population. CUF attributes the imbalance to Excelsior’s heavy credit requirements, which are more often met by SUNY students than by CUNY students.

More research would help determine whether making the above changes to Excelsior would rebalance the distribution of awards between CUNY and SUNY or exacerbate the imbalance.  

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Methodological note: SCCC provided raw data in response to the Freedom of Information Act request but did not provide comprehensive student record data. This research could be extended further with more data and verification of data elements from SCCC.

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Eric Neutuch is a freelance journalist.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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‘Free College’ at One SUNY School Shows ‘Excelsior’ Progress and Problems Sun, 12 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Opportunity Ahead for the New CUNY Chancellor https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8490-the-opportunity-ahead-for-the-new-cuny-chancellor https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8490-the-opportunity-ahead-for-the-new-cuny-chancellor cuny office matos

Former CUNY Chancellor James Milliken, left, & incoming Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez (photo: CUNY)


Today -- Wednesday, May 1 -- Felix Matos-Rodriguez assumes the post of CUNY chancellor following a year-long search. After successfully leading two CUNY colleges, Chancellor Matos-Rodriguez takes over an institution that has made important strides in recent years, including opening an innovative new community college and launching nationally renowned programs like CUNY ASAP.

To help grow New York City’s middle class and greatly expand economic opportunity, CUNY’s next leader will need to make boosting college and career success his highest priority.

The nation’s largest urban public university provides many thousands of New Yorkers from low-income backgrounds with an education that can make the difference between persistent economic struggle and transformative economic and social mobility.

But CUNY still has work to do. Too many students drop out without a credential; graduates do not always end up on the path to career success; curriculum development can lag behind the city’s fast-changing economy; and CUNY sometimes struggles to tune in to the needs of employers.

There’s no time to lose. Today nearly 3.4 million New Yorkers age 25 and older lack any sort of post-secondary credential, exacerbating the city’s opportunity divide. While nearly 61% of Manhattan residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, the same is true for just 19% of those in the Bronx.

For residents without a college credential, far too many of the city’s growing, well-paying occupations -- from software developer to registered nurse -- remain out of reach.

Narrowing that divide depends on CUNY.

There’s no institution better positioned to help lower-income and first-generation students earn a post-secondary credential -- and with it, the opportunity to participate in and shape the economy of the future. But despite recent progress, only 22% of students who enter CUNY's community colleges graduate in three years. At CUNY’s senior colleges, just 55% earn a degree in six years. Getting more New Yorkers on the path to economic opportunity will require a major effort to increase the number of students who graduate with a degree.

The new chancellor’s first goal should be to dramatically improve those figures. Fortunately, CUNY has at least two programs proven to significantly boost completion rates: CUNY ASAP and CUNY Start.

ASAP provides a set of integrated supports to community college students, including free MetroCards and intensive academic counseling. Start is a bootcamp program that significantly boosts academic readiness for underprepared students without burning through their financial aid. Both programs should be made available to all community college students, and a version of ASAP should expand to senior colleges, too.

While it’s true that most community college students enter the classroom struggling with at least one core subject, traditional remedial programs just don’t work. Students in these programs are far more likely to drop out, even though research shows that most can succeed with a little help.

Chancellor Matos-Rodriguez should champion a system-wide effort to move away from traditional remedial education in favor of highly effective alternatives like the corequisite model, which allows students to pursue credit-bearing courses from day one with extra support.

But the challenge for the next chancellor doesn’t end at graduation day. CUNY lacks a strategy to ensure that a CUNY credential leads to career success.

The next chancellor should lead a major effort to engage employers around every campus and develop industry-informed curricula tailored to growing occupations in tech, hospitality, creative industries, healthcare, construction, and beyond.

This will require CUNY to quicken the pace of development for new programs and courses and speed up technology procurement -- and New York City and State should support these efforts with more funding for employer engagement and a faster approvals process for new programs. Additional goals should include launching new apprenticeship programs with industry partners, expanding the number of internships and work-study opportunities available to CUNY students, and pushing to increase and improve career counseling services.

CUNY should also take steps to develop new certificate programs -- designed in partnership with employers, unions, or trade associations -- that can provide community college students with a marketable credential that counts toward a two- or four-year degree.

Doing all this will require sustained and expanded support from New York City and State. But it will also depend on strong and creative leadership at a decisive moment for public higher education. The new chancellor should ensure that CUNY’s faculty, administrators, and curricula have the flexibility to move at the speed of technology and a clear mandate to prepare students for the jobs -- and opportunities -- of the future.

By focusing his administration on elevating college and career success, Chancellor Matos-Rodriguez can help the nation’s largest urban university become its most effective launchpad to the middle class.

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Jonathan Bowles is executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City–based think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity. Winston C. Fisher is partner at Fisher Brothers and co-chair of the New York City Regional Economic Development Council. On Twitter @jbowlesNYC & @Wnston_Fisher1@nycfuture.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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The Opportunity Ahead for the New CUNY Chancellor Tue, 30 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
A New Deal for CUNY This State Budget: Close the TAP Gap and Freeze Tuition https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8400-a-new-deal-for-cuny-in-this-state-budget-close-the-tap-gap-and-freeze-tuition https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8400-a-new-deal-for-cuny-in-this-state-budget-close-the-tap-gap-and-freeze-tuition first lady chi

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office)


While the national admissions bribery scandal rocks the country, another, less sensational, legal -- but still incredibly important -- higher education crisis is unfolding before our eyes in New York. The City University of New York (CUNY), where the majority of the student body comes from underserved communities of color, is in the midst of a financial crisis, putting public higher education at risk for thousands of New Yorkers who want and deserve opportunity.

In 2017 the New York Times reported that CUNY propels “almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as all eight Ivy League campuses, plus Duke, M.I.T., Stanford and Chicago, combined.” Despite its success in doing so, CUNY deals with consistent flat funding and underfunding from state government in Albany, and “predictable” and “rational” tuition hikes have increasingly placed the burden of keeping the University afloat on the backs of students. Tuition hikes are only a band-aid fix to an underlying problem of state divestment in public higher education.

To solve this crisis, the state must prioritize and increase funding towards higher education, starting with the new state budget that is due by Monday, April 1.

CUNY accepts all and recognizes the potential of all, which makes it the right investment. Investing in CUNY means ensuring all New Yorkers, regardless of income or status, can pursue an excellent and affordable education.

My story is the story of many CUNY students. I attended Queensborough Community College with the financial and academic support provided by CUNY’s ASAP program. The opportunity program, like SEEK and ACE, recognizes that access to resources like Metrocards, textbook vouchers, and dedicated advisors can make a world of difference to financially-struggling students. As a new immigrant to the United States, these resources helped provide stability for me and my family.

Mid-way through my college career, we lost my father, the family breadwinner, to cancer. My family relocated to Texas; I was able to stay in New York and continue my education at City College thanks to merit-based scholarships I won given my performance in community college as a straight-A student, propelled by the resources ASAP provided. However, these very same resources that helped me succeed in college are the frequent targets of budget cuts, and others are severely underfunded. For example, at City College, I was only allowed six sessions with a mental health counselor because of budgetary limitations, despite needing more help with navigating the sudden changes in my life.

At the Board of Trustees Public Hearing in January on the fiscal year 2020 budget request, student leaders pointed out that the messaging in Albany around CUNY is inconsistent. How can we herald programs to make college more affordable or provide food pantries, but still choose to burden these same students with a tuition hike of $200 each year, which is more than “modest” for CUNY families?

Predictability of a tuition hike doesn’t change its unaffordability. Another tuition hike also goes against the vision of Governor Cuomo and the tuition-free promise he made to New Yorkers two years ago with the Excelsior Scholarship, which only helps a little over 2 percent of CUNY students. Furthermore, an increase in tuition -- which could and should be rolled back by state lawmakers -- will further widen “the TAP Gap,” the growing difference between the state’s tuition assistance program funding for students and actual tuition costs. As of now the maximum amount of TAP that can be awarded to a student each year is $5,165, while the annual cost of attendance at a four-year college is $6,730, leaving a yearly gap of $1,565 that colleges need to fund by slashing existing programs and services.

The looming financial crisis faced by many of CUNY’s close to 500,000 students is an equity issue, one that disproportionately affects colleges where students of color and those from low-income families are the majority population. For a university once called the “free academy” and the “poor man’s Harvard,” this is disheartening.

Many state legislators were beneficiaries of CUNY’s opportunity programs and support services -- some even went to CUNY for free -- and should recognize the value of investing in higher education. Shifting the burden of funding from the public to students is a betrayal of New York’s commitment to college affordability and we in the CUNY Student Senate call on leadership to take the necessary measures to end disinvestment in public higher education and protect that commitment instead.

The Legislature and Governor Cuomo must provide $32 million to reinstate a tuition freeze across all public colleges like they did in 2016, provide the $74 million needed to fill the TAP Gap, and commit funds to expand opportunity programs and support services, not just simply restoring proposed cuts.

On Sunday, over 100 students marched from City Hall, across Brooklyn Bridge, to Brooklyn Borough Hall, with Borough Presidents Gale Brewer and Eric Adams, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and State Senator Robert Jackson joining in solidarity, for a new deal for CUNY. The needs of CUNY students are not mutually exclusive to the needs of New Yorkers, and rather than short-changing higher education, Albany leaders should support the university, whose mission is synonymous with the state’s mission of providing all New York families a pathway to a better life.

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Haris Khan is the chairperson for the CUNY University Student Senate (USS) and the only student member of the CUNY Board of Trustees. He also sits on the NYS Higher Education Services Corporation Board of Trustees and studies Politics, Diplomacy, and Law in the CUNY BA program at The City College of New York. On Twitter @hariskhan97.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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A New Deal for CUNY This State Budget: Close the TAP Gap and Freeze Tuition Thu, 28 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council Examines CUNY Budget, City Funding for Community Colleges https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8340-council-examines-cuny-budget-city-funding-for-community-colleges https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8340-council-examines-cuny-budget-city-funding-for-community-colleges cm i barron meeting

Council Member Inez Barron (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


City Council members on Thursday questioned administrators for the City University of New York as part of a preliminary budget hearing regarding the public university system, which is funded through a variety of sources including city, state, and federal dollars, as well as tuition.

The hearing was helmed by Higher Education Committee Chair Inez Barron, who represents parts of Brooklyn, is a Hunter College graduate and former public school teacher, and has long argued that CUNY should be tuition-free for all students.

The hearing touched on various issues that have been associated with CUNY for years, such as the increased use of adjunct professors in the system, potential for new hiring, and the role CUNY plays as a vehicle for upward mobility.

The total CUNY budget request for this coming fiscal year, from all sources, is $3.9 billion.

Within the CUNY system, the main recipients of city dollars are community colleges; senior colleges are mostly funded by the state. Under the “predictable” tuition increase plan, in place since 2011, tuition at CUNY’s community colleges has increased by nearly 50 percent, from $3,600 to $4,800 annually. Unlike the senior colleges, however, the community colleges have now had three straight years of tuition freezes.

“In my opinion, I’m opposed to annual tuition increases,” Barron said. “We’re glad that community college has not had to bear that brunt. And my objective is to make CUNY tuition-free. That’s my objective.”

At Thursday’s hearing, CUNY administrators said that if a requested increase in state funding of $250 per student “full time equivalent” is not provided, the community colleges may have to unfreeze tuition rates.

“This increase in state funding, along with continued city support, would adequately support community college operations and enable the university to freeze community college tuition rates for a fourth straight year,” said Matthew Sapienza, CUNY’s senior vice chancellor and chief financial officer.

Mayor de Blasio’s preliminary budget, released in February, calls for $1.181 billion for CUNY in fiscal year 2020, which begins July 1 of this year. This is a decrease from the $1.196 billion in the adopted budget for the current fiscal year, and includes a $14 million cut for community colleges specifically, from $1.143 billion to $1.129 billion.

For community colleges, labor costs will grow by $16 million, from $792.2 million to $808.6 million, due to collective bargaining agreements, while the “other than personal services” allocation shrinks from $350.9 million to $320.1 million, mainly from a $34 million cut to the budget for “supplies and materials,” according to a City Council report.

The mayor’s preliminary budget also includes appropriations for senior colleges ($35 million) and for the public K-12 schools on Hunter College’s campus ($18.2 million). Both of these are essentially flat from the current budget. The rest of CUNY’s budget comes from the state, the federal government, student tuition, scholarships, and grants.

The CUNY administrators present highlighted several key areas they hoped the Council would help fund, including expansion of the successful Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) initiative, efforts to address student food insecurity, and expansion of CUNY’s childcare program, which is not present at every school.

The administrators also called for the Council to help significantly increase funding for CUNY’s associate programs, funding for which has remained flat for over 20 years, by matching the funding to inflation. That would double the programs’ funding, from $32.3 million to $65.1 million.

Over the next four years, CUNY wants to hire 800 new full-time faculty, an attempted departure from the adjunctification trend in at its schools and across higher education. CUNY’s labor force now counts 7,600 full-time instructors and 13,000 adjuncts, who make as little as $3,200 per course, do not have job security, and often have to teach multiple classes per semester at different schools just to make a meager living.

The Professional Staff Congress, a union that represents full-time and part-time CUNY instructors, is aiming to both lessen the university’s reliance on adjuncts and double adjunct pay per course.

“If you take the $3,200 minimum pay per course, and divide that by the number of hours it takes to actually teach a course, grading, preparing, meeting with students, responding to their emails, counseling, the actual pay works out to be just about minimum wage or lower,” said Barbara Bowen, the president of PSC. “So for people with PhDs, master’s degrees, teaching the next generation of college students, responsible for conveying to them the message that if you finish your college degree, a good future awaits you, that very person who has a college degree and a couple of advanced degrees is making less than minimum wage. There is something very wrong about that.”

Among those who attended and asked questions other than Barron were Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez, Robert Holden, and Ben Kallos.

On the capital front, major renovations at several colleges, many of which consist of old and somewhat neglected buildings, are included in the mayor’s preliminary capital plan for fiscal years 2019-2023, including $5.9 million in city funding for a major renovation at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. Not included, but requested, is $50 million for a permanent home for Guttman Community College in Manhattan, CUNY’s newest institution.

The Council’s preliminary budget hearings will continue for the rest of March, analyzing the mayor’s preliminary budget proposal. The Council will then release its formal budget response and then the mayor will release his executive budget proposal, triggering additional Council hearings.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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Council Examines CUNY Budget, City Funding for Community Colleges Fri, 08 Mar 2019 05:00:00 +0000
After Amazon: Establishing Our Local Pipeline for Future Opportunities https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8301-after-amazon-establishing-our-local-pipeline-for-future-opportunities https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8301-after-amazon-establishing-our-local-pipeline-for-future-opportunities general lagcc 600

(photo: LaGuardia Community College, CUNY)


With Amazon’s pronouncement to put the brakes on its plan to bring part of its new headquarters to Long Island City, it’s time to make lemonade out of the many lemons left in the wake.

Amazon’s decision to locate here centered on our city’s ability to get the company the talent it needs to grow. It’s what every company, large and small, needs to thrive.

When Amazon first announced it was coming, one of the first questions raised was: who will benefit? Would the 25,000 jobs help our local community, including the residents of Queensbridge Houses, the nation’s largest public housing complex, and LaGuardia Community College, where more than 70% of students come from households with incomes of less than $30,000? What kinds of jobs would be open to someone with just a high school diploma, an associate’s, a bachelor’s? Would it be New Yorkers who benefitted, or people recruited from elsewhere in the country and the world?

In my engagement with City, State, and Amazon representatives, it became clear to me that New York (and conceivably many localities) needs a stronger, integrated system that links private and public spheres to educate future employees. Amazon’s proposed campus in Long Island City highlighted the need for that more robust, sustained development of talent pipelines in the fundamental field of tech, especially for people in low-income communities.

The first step is more employers willing to establish long-term partnerships with local colleges and universities so there’s clear understanding of the technical, intellectual, and practical skills needed for job-openings. Without strong employer partnerships, we can’t be certain that our students will be job-ready upon graduation.

We need more companies, especially tech companies, willing to invest in developing local talent by providing paid internships and mentorship opportunities for nontraditional and traditional students alike. We need more collaborations to create job-specific training programs, like one we have with Google to provide training in IT support.

Without far-reaching programs that connect students who are older, poor, or speak English less than well, tech employers will continue relying on the same private and elite-college networks for hiring.

Fledgling progress was being made with Amazon to create pathways to jobs. At the end of January, Amazon announced a collaboration with LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, and SUNY to create a program to train people (with at least a high school diploma) for jobs in cloud computing.

But more than programs, public officials, employers, and educators must convene and nurture the building of an ecosystem that connects the many assets a community can use to establish a collaborative approach. If a community can encircle a potential employee with support and education, and companies can create bona fide paths to employment, there is no limit to the amount of social mobility and community vibrancy that can be created.

LaGuardia Community College knows how well employer-education partnerships can work when it all comes together. Queens resident Matt O’Connor was working full-time packing boxes at a nearby delivery service when he came to LaGuardia to channel his passion for coding. He was offered internship opportunities that grounded his classroom work. Matt first interned at the tech accelerator Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator, where he worked with small tech start-ups. His next paid software development internship was at Place Pixel, a company that creates next-generation mapping experiences. It went so well that he was offered a full-time job with an equity share in the company. Matt said it felt miraculous when he was able to quit the package delivery company. Today, he’s a full-time software engineer at the company SevenFifty.

But with better and more targeted resources, we can do even more. We need elected officials to step up and increase the investment in our public colleges: to give us the resources to re-imagine what and how we teach. We need to be able to hire and support full-time faculty who can effectively teach complex material, particularly to a diverse student body. We need the funding to support the collaboration across organizational silos. It’s not just the funding for expanding holistic support like child care, and philanthropy to support transportation, emergency funds, and an on-campus food pantry. It’s also dedicated funding to link the path from the housing projects to training, and from training to college.

Over the coming weeks and months, there will be much analysis of what went right or wrong with the Amazon deal. No matter who declares victory, what Long Island City is left with does little for the low-income and aspiring New Yorkers who remain on the sidelines. Let’s not lose a moment in getting our talent prepared for whatever happens next, whether it’s the next Amazon wanting to locate here or the start-up just beginning to get launched.

Whether you are cheering or bemoaning the crumbling of the agreement, we can all agree those who’ve been historically locked out of job opportunities in the fastest growing industries need more pathways to these good, steady jobs that enable them to provide for themselves and their families.

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Gail O. Mellow is President of LaGuardia Community College. On Twitter @LaGuardiaCC.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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After Amazon: Establishing Our Local Pipeline for Future Opportunities Thu, 21 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Public Higher Education for New Yorkers Is Under Serious Threat https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8276-public-higher-education-for-new-yorkers-is-under-serious-threat https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8276-public-higher-education-for-new-yorkers-is-under-serious-threat 2017 medgar evers college

(photo: CUNY Office of Communications)


New Yorkers should be proud that the City University of New York leads the nation in offering low-income students the opportunity to enter the middle class. CUNY is a powerful engine of social mobility.  

But that engine is at risk of breaking down unless our elected officials change course. Years of systemic underinvestment in educational opportunities for students of color – starting well before they reach university - means that students are increasingly unprepared for the global economy at the same time that their professors are stretched incredibly thin trying to make ends meet.

My wife and I are both adjuncts – like the majority of professors who are teaching CUNY students - at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. We each make about $3,500 a course, the average wage for adjuncts at CUNY. When you factor in time for grading, student conferences, and planning, this compensation comes to not much more than minimum wage.

We now have an 8-month old daughter and despite reducing our household expenses to the bare necessities and taking on side gigs (like driving for Uber), our total debt just keeps growing. We can’t afford childcare that is available at the college we teach at and so we are presently applying for subsidized childcare elsewhere. I am sharing these intimate details because these are the kinds of circumstances CUNY adjuncts are grappling with all around this expensive city.

My wife and I – and all the other adjuncts we know – love teaching. We want to be there for our John Jay students, the next generation of police officers, emergency personnel, and legal professionals who will go on to provide public safety, justice, and aid for our beloved City.

I routinely meet adjunct professors who are juggling four, five, and six courses not simply because they love teaching, but because they are trying to combine the wages of a number of low-paid courses in order to pay the rent. But others I speak to have given up and are leaving the college teaching profession at the first better-paid alternative.

Other universities manage to pay their professors – both full-time and adjunct – a decent wage. But not CUNY.

Adjuncts at the University of Connecticut start at $4,700 per course. At Rutgers in New Jersey the starting pay for an adjunct is $5,200, while at Penn State it is $6,100. Nearby private colleges pay adjuncts even more. At Fordham, they start at $7,000. At Barnard they will soon earn $10,000 per course.

Our full-time CUNY colleagues are underpaid as well, with average salaries well below peer institutions like Pace, the University of Connecticut and Rutgers.

All of this means that it’s harder to attract good teachers – right as CUNY is desperately trying to improve the faculty diversity at the University. And it means that teachers have less time to spend on their students – as they’re pushed to take on side jobs to make ends meet.

Per-student state support for CUNY’s senior colleges has decreased 18% over the last 10 years when you adjust  for inflation. In that time, tuition has skyrocketed.

It would not take billions to make real change: $350 million, a drop in the bucket compared to the billions in subsidies our elected officials are prepared to offer Amazon, would ensure that CUNY remains accessible while continuing to reduce inequality and fight poverty.  

CUNY and its graduates have given so much to New York City. But if politicians continue to starve public higher education and the people who make it work, the CUNY economic miracle will not be there for future generations.

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Sami Disu is an adjunct professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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Public Higher Education for New Yorkers Is Under Serious Threat Tue, 12 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
To Help More Students Succeed in College, Reform Remedial Education https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8171-to-help-more-students-succeed-in-college-reform-remedial-education https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8171-to-help-more-students-succeed-in-college-reform-remedial-education class2018 laguardia comm

(photo via LaGuardia Community College)


New York’s community college students face long odds of graduating. Only 25 percent of community college students statewide—and just 22 percent in New York City—earn an associate’s degree in three years, an enormous barrier to economic opportunity in a state where a college credential is becoming the floor to career success. There are multiple reasons why so many New Yorkers aren’t making it through college, but one major driver is clear: far too many students entering community colleges in New York are being pushed into remedial education programs.

Recognizing that developmental education is unintentionally derailing students from the path to a degree, both CUNY and SUNY are taking important steps to reform this system from the ground up. Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature should support these essential efforts by setting broad goals for reducing the number of students in remedial programs and funding innovative alternatives at community colleges statewide.

Remedial education has long been viewed as a necessity, since large numbers of students enter the state’s public colleges academically underprepared. At New York’s community colleges, which take all applicants and serve thousands of low-income and first-generation college students each year, most students enter struggling with at least one core subject like math or reading, and the majority are placed into remedial education.

But researchers now know that traditional remedial programs aren’t working. Students entering these programs are far more likely to drop out by the end of their first year, and the vast majority will fail to graduate with a degree—even as studies show that many students could have succeeded by staying out of developmental education entirely.

In recent years, roughly three-quarters of CUNY community college students placed into at least one remedial math, writing, or reading course. Nearly 90 percent of these students will not earn an on-time degree, and six in ten remedial math students will have dropped out within two years. Whatever initial excitement spurred these students into college quickly fades, as some of their peers make progress toward a degree while they remain stuck in classes that feel like high school never ended—all while burning through financial aid.

A better system is possible, and it starts with placing fewer students there in the first place.

In fact, evidence shows that high-stakes placement tests are weak predictors of a student’s potential, and many students who end up in remedial education can succeed in credit-bearing courses. CUNY and SUNY are developing smarter placement algorithms that analyze more than just test scores, and this data-backed reform should expand.

Of course, some underprepared students will require extra support to succeed in college. These students need access to programs that can build academic skills while maintaining momentum toward a degree.

That’s where innovative new approaches can make a difference. Study after study has shown that reimagined alternatives to remedial education programs are working for underprepared students by improving learning outcomes, boosting college completion, and speeding the path to a credential.

For instance, CUNY’s Start program has shown tremendous early results by providing an intensive, single-semester course combined with significant academic and non-academic support—all without using up financial aid. In addition, CUNY is expanding the highly-promising corequisite model, which places students in credit-bearing math and English courses bolstered by weekly support sessions. This approach is proving effective, helping students pass gateway math and English courses at higher rates and even improving college completion. Likewise, SUNY’s Math Pathways program is taking a similar approach to rethink math remediation for underprepared community college students.

As evidence mounts that these new strategies are working, it’s time for New York policymakers to give remedial reform a major boost. First, the State Legislature should pass a law setting broad goals for improving support systems for underprepared students, significantly decreasing the remedial population, and aligning SUNY’s and CUNY’s approaches with best practices nationwide, while leaving the specifics up to education leaders. Policymakers should then fuel progress toward these goals by implementing a new time-limited challenge grant for community colleges, aimed at expanding remedial education reforms quickly and efficiently to campuses statewide.

Traditional remedial education has been just another stumbling block on the road to a college credential. By investing in comprehensive remedial education reform, New York State can lift up underprepared students and put thousands more on track to a brighter economic future.

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Eli Dvorkin is editorial and policy director of the Center for an Urban Future, a New York–based think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity. On Twitter @WetWax & @nycfuture.

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To Help More Students Succeed in College, Reform Remedial Education Thu, 03 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
The Ups and Downs of Excelsior Scholarship’s Freshman Year and What Comes Next https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8025-the-ups-and-downs-of-excelsior-scholarship-s-freshman-year-and-what-comes-next https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8025-the-ups-and-downs-of-excelsior-scholarship-s-freshman-year-and-what-comes-next cuomo excelsior

Gov. Cuomo celebrates Excelsior (photo via the Governor's Office)


The Excelsior Scholarship is a little over a year old, which makes it a good time to take stock. In October 2017 as the program launched, Governor Andrew Cuomo proclaimed, “Our first-in-the-nation Excelsior Scholarship is designed so more New Yorkers go to college tuition-free and receive the education they deserve to reach their full potential." Now that the program is in its third semester, we can explore the program’s freshman year experience to assess its impact, successes, and struggles. Who has benefited the most? Who hasn’t? And what elements need fixing?     

The Inaugural Class
In Fall 2017, 20,086 students were awarded Excelsior scholarships and attended SUNY and CUNY colleges tuition-free.

Excelsior is a “last dollar” program, which means that awards are made only after accounting for other grant aid received, namely federal Pell grants and grants from the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).

Low-income SUNY and CUNY students typically receive enough aid from Pell and TAP to cover all or most of their tuition costs, so Excelsior funds have primarily gone to middle-class students, as designed by Gov. Cuomo. For the 2017-2018 academic year, the maximum family income threshold was $100,000, which increased to $110,000 for 2018-2019, and will rise to $125,000 for 2019-2020.

The creation of the Excelsior program brought much-needed relief to students and families caught in the middle-class college affordability squeeze, neither eligible for much financial aid nor easily able to pay the rising tuition and fee amounts at CUNY and SUNY.

Ghennah Forde, a junior at Brooklyn College, was one of Excelsior’s inaugural beneficiaries. During her freshman year, Ghennah and her parents, who identify as middle-class, struggled to pay Ghennah’s college expenses. Her mom’s salary from working in a hospital’s pathology lab and her father’s from working in a rehabilitation facility’s kitchen were too high for Ghennah to quality for Pell aid. After accounting for a TAP award of $500 per year, Ghennah had a tuition balance of approximately $6,000. “Financial aid was not on my side,” she says. When the Excelsior Scholarship award came through, she says, it was “such a blessing.”

Another Excelsior beneficiary, Ryan Walsh, received small amounts of Pell and TAP during his first two years as a commuter student at the State University of New York at Albany. When he began his freshman year, he had $16,000 in family savings for college-related expenses, but that money was mostly gone by the end of his sophomore year.  Looking ahead to his junior year, Ryan saw looming a big tuition bill and car insurance and mobile phone charges. “Money was stressing me out a lot,” he says.

When Ryan’s dad heard about Cuomo’s proposal for the Excelsior Scholarship, it was a lifeline and a much-needed financial bailout. “Right when I ran out of money,” Ryan says, “the Excelsior Scholarship was announced.” Once Ryan got confirmation that Excelsior would cover his junior year tuition, he says, “I was so happy.” Receiving Excelsior eased his financial stresses. Now instead of panicking about money, Ryan worries about his upcoming graduation and breaking into the entertainment journalism industry.  

Low-income students have gained little financially from Excelsior, yet the governor and others have made the argument that low-income students benefit from the program’s simple message that anyone, regardless of family income, can go to college for free. Excelsior may be motivating more students, including low-income students, to prepare for and enroll in college, though it’s impossible to know. For Fall 2018, CUNY’s freshman enrollment increased to 39,938 students from 38,162 in Fall 2017, a gain of 4.0%. CUNY officials attribute the increase to two factors, including Excelsior and also an initiative waiving CUNY’s $65 freshman application fee for public school students. The increase may be the result of these and/or any number of factors, including that some students may now be choosing CUNY who otherwise would have chosen private institutions. SUNY has not yet released Fall 2018 freshman enrollment numbers.  

CUNY vs. SUNY
The 20,086 students who received Excelsior in Fall 2017 are a sizable group, yet they only represent 3.2% of the state’s total population of SUNY and CUNY students, which exceeds 630,000. Excelsior is barely a presence on some campuses. In Fall 2017, just 34 students received the grant at the 7,200-student CUNY Hostos Community College. Indeed, according to a report released in August 2018 by the Center for an Urban Future (CUF), a New York City-based policy think tank, only 0.8% of CUNY community college students received Excelsior.  

The CUF report indicates that students who attend SUNY bachelor’s-granting institutions benefit at much higher rates. At these institutions, approximately 6.8% of all undergraduates received Excelsior in Fall 2017. At SUNY Albany, where Ryan attends, more than 8% of the in-state resident students received Excelsior.

The uneven distribution of Excelsior funds does not sit well with CUNY advocates. State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, says, “From the very beginning, I suspected that Excelsior wouldn’t prove as valuable for your average CUNY student as for SUNY full-time students.” At an August rally protesting Excelsior’s limitations, New York City Council Member and CUNY Hunter College alumnae Inez Barron declared, “Governor Cuomo is playing a shell game.”  

The Heavy Credit Accumulation Requirement
Excelsior includes a controversial provision: students must earn 30 credits each year to receive and maintain the scholarship. This stipulation has effectively disqualified part-time students and students who are not on track to graduate within two years from associate degree programs and within four years from bachelor’s degrees programs. In a statement provided to Politico, Don Kaplan, a spokesperson for Governor Cuomo, defended the requirement as “incentivizing on-time graduation.”

The credit requirement has had stimulating effects on both Ghennah and Ryan. Ryan says, “I definitely have been more motivated. I want to make sure that I don’t lose the scholarship.”

Ghennah was well-aware of the 30-credit mandate when she applied for and accepted her Excelsior award. Feeling the pressure of Excelsior, she enrolled in and successfully completed 32 credits during her sophomore year. Now that she is a junior, she is on track to have 90-plus credits by the end of the current academic year and has planned out her courses on a color-coded spreadsheet so that she will graduate at the end of her fourth year, something only achieved by 27% of Brooklyn College students.  

Yet Ghennah and Ryan are just two data points in a crowd of some 20,086 Excelsior recipients. To better understand whether Excelsior is bolstering credit accumulation and on-time completion at CUNY and SUNY colleges, the State’s Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC) should release detailed Excelsior data to the public and to researchers. Thus far, HESC has released only basic Excelsior data, and belatedly so. Information on the Fall 2017 beneficiaries was released in July 2018, and information on the Spring 2018 beneficiaries has not yet been released as of mid-October.       

Implementation Woes
New public sector programs often encounter implementation road-bumps, yet Excelsior's first year was particularly rough.

HESC admittedly had especially tight time constraints. The Legislature voted in support of Excelsior in April 2017, just months before the start of the academic year. Only after the HESC Board met in May and approved of the program’s regulations could the agency issue the online application, which it did in early June, requiring submissions by late July. This meant that the official eligibility criteria and application procedures only had two months to filter down to CUNY and SUNY students, most of whom were off campus, and prospective students.

With a lack of clarity as to who was eligible, many students applied for Excelsior who neither needed nor were eligible for it. Of the 91,961 Excelsior applicants for Fall 2017, up to 28,362 did not need to complete the application, as they were already eligible for other grant aid to fully cover their tuition costs. Another 43,513 applicants were denied for failing to meet the eligibility criteria, with most of them—36,095—rejected because they did not meet the requirement of having earned 30 credits per year for each year of prior collegiate study.  

Assembly Member Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the Assembly education committee, asked a Cuomo representative during a December 2017 hearing, "Did we do so much when it came to letting people know that the program existed but not enough in letting people know what the criteria was and raised false hopes?" Cuomo’s representative replied, “I don't think we did.”  

One Excelsior requirement that has yet to be well-communicated requires recipients who complete less than 30 credits during a full academic year to pay back the second semester of their Excelsior aid. The main HESC Excelsior website buries this requirement in a long list of FAQs. Given that the “payback” requirement is non-intuitive and unprecedented in financial aid program design, one would expect that it would be featured more prominently on the website and in HESC communications.  

In August 2018, at a HESC Board Meeting, Sarah Buell, a SUNY financial aid officer speaking as a member of the SUNY Financial Aid Professionals group, expressed the frustrations of the group when she said, “We have gone months without formal written guidance.” According to Buell, SUNY financial aid officers were struggling with how to answer basic questions from students and parents about Excelsior’s regulations and about HESC’s processing of applications.  

The following day, SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson’s office sent a memo to campuses directing their financial aid officers not to speak with the media.

Denied Excelsior
Razieh Arabi is one of the students who applied for Excelsior aid and was denied. A 37-year-old single mother, Razieh applied for Excelsior as she was transferring to CUNY Baruch College after having completed an associate degree at CUNY Queensborough Community College (QCC) with a GPA of 3.93.

What happened? Because Razieh had taken three years to complete her Queensborough degree, having begun as a part-time student, and also because she had attended a proprietary college before Queensborough, she was deemed off-track and ineligible for Excelsior. When she received the denial letter, she says, “Despite all the hope the program provided, it felt like everything was falling apart for me.”  

HESC’s regulations were explicit that the 30 credits per year requirement was retroactive, and the application asks detailed college history questions, yet Razieh says that she was not aware that her past enrollment history would disqualify her. When she applied, she thought that an accomplished student like herself was naturally eligible for the program. “If I’m not qualified, then who is qualified?” she asks. (Graduating in three years from Queensborough after beginning as a part-time student was a remarkable feat by Razieh given that QCC has a 22.6% three-year graduation rate for students who begin full-time.)

Since being denied Excelsior, Razieh has become an activist for reforms to the program. At the rally held in late August, at which Council Member Barron spoke, Razieh addressed the crowd. “Governor Cuomo should make critical reforms to the Excelsior Scholarship program,” she said. “If you are making a promise, then rise up to the challenge and don’t deliver just an empty promise.”  

Razieh tells the story of her Excelsior denial with elements of tragedy, comedy, and anger. She had already felt wronged by the proprietary college sector that had wasted her time and money and by the federal financial aid formula that limited her aid while at Queensborough. Now she considered herself wronged by the retroactivity of a standard that she could have never known about, lacking the ability to see into the future, before Excelsior existed.

Excelsior’s Future
As more and more students get caught up in Excelsior’s complex rules, the program is being exposed as a complicated financial aid initiative, just like Pell and TAP, and it may come to be seen as punitive, too, due to the payback requirement. Though HESC has said that the payback stipulation will be waived for students who miss the 30-credit cutoff because of documented hardships, the guidance is limited on which hardship appeals will be accepted and which won’t. A death of a parent clearly qualifies for a successful appeal, but will a stressful relationship breakup combined with family problems and a terrible summer session chemistry class be enough for a student with 27 credits due to an F in that chemistry class to maintain the scholarship via an appeal? The guidance is not definitive.  

Another requirement of Excelsior is that beneficiaries must stay in-state following graduation for the same number of years as they received the scholarship, lest their awards convert into loans. The requirement has been equated with indentured servitude. While both Ghennah and Ryan plan to stay in-state following graduation, other students will likely feel trapped.      

Despite all its failures and flaws, few are calling for Excelsior to be rolled back. Instead, Excelsior has become established policy. Senator Krueger says, “It’s very rare that you create a program that can be taken advantage of by people who are above the poverty level. Those programs don’t get taken away.”  

Advocates of expanding financial aid in New York State, like Tom Hilliard, who wrote the CUF report, say that Excelsior is the base from which incremental reforms can be made, reforms that make the promise of “free college” more real to more students. Hilliard has called for reducing the onerous 30-credit burden, eliminating its retroactivity provisions, and getting rid of the requirement that graduates remain in-state.

Senator Krueger says, “We need to amend and improve Excelsior. Full-time is an unrealistic ask, and we need to offer flexibility to students who can’t go full-time.”

Echoing Krueger, State Senator Luis Sepulveda, Bronx Democrat, adds, “Excelsior has to be tweaked so that it can help a larger body of students, especially those who also need to work.”  

This fall, Sepulveda plans to introduce, with other Democratic colleagues, a bill to modify the 30-credit requirement. The bill may adopt TAP’s satisfactory academic progress standards, or, at a minimum, according to Sepulveda, it will authorize HESC to count developmental education course credits, which are typically non-credited, towards the 30-credit threshold.  

Krueger and Sepulveda both consider the conversation about Excelsior to be part of a larger one about how to provide quality public higher education to state residents. Among other initiatives, Sepulveda calls for extending state financial aid to summer sessions, initiating a micro-grant program for emergency expenses, instituting a guided pathways system across CUNY and SUNY, and increasing base aid to colleges so that more sections of required courses can be offered. As Krueger says, “If we’re not putting more money into our universities, we’re actually risking the quality of the education that [Excelsior awardees] are getting.”

Both Krueger and Sepulveda say that after the November election—in which Democrats are poised to gain control of the State Senate—there will likely be enough votes to pass changes to Excelsior, and Sepulveda projects that the governor will support some reforms. “If this is something that the governor deems reasonable,” he said, “I believe that he will give it a hard look.” If Sepulveda is right, Excelsior’s junior year may well look different from its freshman and sophomore years.  

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Eric Neutuch is a freelance journalist.

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The Ups and Downs of Excelsior Scholarship’s Freshman Year and What Comes Next Mon, 29 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000