Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2240 Tue, 25 Jun 2019 02:44:23 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) ‘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 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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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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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
LaGuardia College President Whipped Colleague Support for Cuomo Scholarship https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7088-laguardia-college-president-whipped-colleague-support-for-cuomo-scholarship https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7088-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.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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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 https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7065-the-excelsior-scholarship-s-academic-requirements-are-far-too-high https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7065-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.

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

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

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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 https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6987-while-calling-for-cuny-investigations-cuomo-sought-endorsements-from-college-presidents https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6987-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.”

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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