Gotham Gazette Sat, 24 Aug 2019 00:40:27 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) ‘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.  

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.

Eric Neutuch is a freelance journalist.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

‘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 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.

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.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

The Opportunity Ahead for the New CUNY Chancellor Tue, 30 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Colleges Likely to Continue Bans If New York Legalizes Recreational Marijuana Use St. John's University

St. John's University (photo via St. John's on flickr)

The legalization of adult recreational marijuana use is on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2019 agenda for the first 100 days of his new term, and the governor is expected to announce details of his legalization proposal on Tuesday, during a joint State of the State speech and executive budget presentation. There appears to be support for the measure, at least the general concept of recreational marijuana use becoming legal for adults in New York, among the Democratic majorities of both houses of the state Legislature, meaning legalization could occur within the next few months, with a likely age requirement of 21.

However, regardless of changes to state law, college students 21 or older may need to consult a different set of guidelines — institutions of higher education in New York may continue to ban marijuana use on campus and punish students who smoke on school grounds, several sources indicated to Gotham Gazette.

In other states that have legalized recreational marijuana use, from Washington to Massachusetts, this is the norm. Many colleges receive federal funds through research programs or grants and also allocate federal financial aid or FAFSA to students. In order to continue using federal funding and aid, colleges must continue to enforce federal law, according to sources at multiple universities.

The Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 is a federal law signed by President Ronald Reagan that requires those who receive contracts or grants from the government to maintain a drug-free workplace. The Drug Free Schools and Communities Act is another federal law requiring universities receiving federal funding to implement a program to prevent the use of illegal substances by students and employees. Both of these laws prevent colleges and universities from enacting marijuana legalization.

Ken McConnellogue, Vice President of Communication at the University of Colorado, told Gotham Gazette that marijuana use on campus is still a punishable offense there. Students caught using the substance are warned, although the university has a “three strikes, you’re out” policy. The third offense of any kind by a student often results in expulsion, he said.

“Marijuana, like alcohol, is banned on our campuses,” McConnellogue said. “Although we’re not so naive as to think students aren’t using it just like alcohol.”

In response to the passage of Colorado Amendment 64 — the ballot measure initiative that legalized recreational marijuana in the state in 2012 — McConnellogue said that the university has increased its efforts to educate students on the law and university policy, as well as to enforce its policy against the drug.

Students are not the only ones that need educating about the university’s policy, as parents from out of state who send their kids to Colorado are often concerned about the campus environment, according to McConnellogue.

“They worry students are walking around on campus smoking a joint,” McConnellogue said.

Brian Browne, Executive Director of University Relations at St. John’s University, said that if New York legalizes adult marijuana use the Queens school would be following a similar path to the University of Colorado, and continue to enforce federal law.

"The proposed legalization of recreational marijuana in New York State will most likely not put any new or legal high in New York's higher education,” Browne wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette. "As long as marijuana remains a controlled substance according to federal law, we can expect that most college campuses will continue to ban marijuana use by students and employees regardless of state law."

New York University spokesperson Shonna Keogan confirmed that NYU would also continue to enforce federal law.

“In compliance with federal law, NYU does not permit possession, use, or distribution of marijuana in any form for any purpose on campus,” Keogan wrote in an email to the Gazette.

While colleges plan to continue to ban use on campus, it appears legal marijuana is indeed coming to New York. Governor Cuomo first called on the Department of Health to conduct a study in January of 2018, then commissioned a workgroup in August and began a series of listening sessions around the state in September, lasting until mid-October.

In addition, the state conducted a report that concluded that there would be a net positive effect if marijuana was legalized in New York, despite some potential negatives. Other state agencies and subject matter experts were consulted by the Department of Health in the hopes of getting a complete picture of the issue, though Cuomo has not outlined his proposed legal and regulatory system yet.

The process is one that Sandy Mullins, Senior Research Scholar in the Litmus program at NYU’s Marron Institute, believes had a positive result. As Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s senior policy advisor, Mullins was involved in the legalization process that occurred in that state in 2012.

Mullins said that the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which is the proposed legislation that would legalize marijuana in New York that has been introduced in the state Legislature, is already a step in the right direction compared to other states because it is legislation rather than a ballot initiative. In states like Colorado and Washington, legalization has occurred through ballot initiatives or amendments that cannot be changed easily. Most amendments require a supermajority in the Legislature to be changed, or passage by voters. Washington State Initiative 502, which legalized marijuana there, could not be changed until a year after it passed. By legalizing through legislation, New York leaves the ability to amend the law fairly quickly and efficiently if necessary.

“Creating the draft and having public input into that draft legislation and having minds around it, that in and of itself was a very thoughtful process,” Mullins said. “As a policy wonk, it made me tear up, just looking at their process and this legislation that was so thoughtfully crafted.”

That legislation is not necessarily what Cuomo will propose, though, and the governor and Legislature will need to come to an agreement on the details of New York is to legalize recreational marijuana use, including a detailed regulatory scheme.

During the listening sessions, two major concerns were brought up, according to marijuana legalization activists who attended. Some worry that youth use and driving while under the influence will increase if the legislation is passed.

The Drug Policy Alliance is an advocacy group that supports policy that decriminalizes drug use, among other things. Deputy State Director of the DPA Melissa Moore said that based on states that have gone through the process, these fears can be alleviated.

“Some of the concerns around youth use and driving, in particular, are really assuaged by looking at the data from states that have legalized for years,” Moore said. “We see from Colorado that youth use has remained stable, if not actually declined, since legalization.”

A study done by the libertarian think-tank the Reason Foundation found that “There are few convincing conclusions to be drawn concerning the risk of traffic accident fatalities from marijuana legalization.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio released a 77-page report on December 20 with his own recommendations for how the legalization process should occur. In it, the report cites multiple studies that suggest youth use does not increase after legalization.

“Recent studies show that following legalization in other states, past-month use generally remained stable or declined among adolescents and college students” the report says.

Angela Hawken, Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute of Urban Management and a member of Governor Cuomo’s workgroup, suggested that this decline in use may be due to legalization making smoking marijuana less of a defiant act for adolescents, and mentioned the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, an activist group.

“NORML was predicting that adolescent use would go down in the face of legalization because it throws the rebellious act out the door,” Hawken said.

One aspect of legalization that may cause problems for universities, especially in New York City, is the inevitable opening of retail marijuana stores near campuses. At the University of Colorado Boulder, McConnellogue says that such shops have gone so far as to ask if the university would be willing to put a 2-for-1 coupon in the welcome week packets they give to students.

Although the university declined, retail stores opening near campuses is something the college does not have power over.

“We don’t control what happens beyond the borders of our campus,” McConnellogue said. These types of considerations could be part of how regulations are drawn up by lawmakers, however.

For colleges like Columbia, New York University, and CUNY, among others embedded into New York City neighborhoods, distinguishing between on and off campus, and making sure students know the boundaries, could pose some difficulty. However, for some schools, drug use is against the code of student conduct, and so impermissible wherever it occurs.

Emerson student Anissa Gardizy, who has written about marijuana policy at her Boston area university for the school newspaper, said that this is the case at Emerson.

“You would assume that if you have an apartment and you find your own lease that you can do whatever you want if it’s legal in your state,” Gardizy said. “But technically not if you’re an Emerson student.”

All told, even if official school policy at any higher education institution is that marijuana use is banned, enforcement is another -- like with alcohol on campuses. At the University of Colorado, McConnellogue says enforcement has increased.

“In some senses, we have had greater numbers of tickets and counters with students, but that’s not so much to do with marijuana legalization but to do with our efforts to enforce [the ban on] illegal substances,” McConnellogue said.

In contrast, Gardizy said that Emerson has seemed to have introduced a less strict policy in the wake of Massachusetts legalization.

“I feel like Emerson is more focused on keeping us safe as students, they’re not going out of their way to bust students or get them in trouble and get them a criminal record,” Gardizy said. “Our RAs don’t go around smelling the rooms, I think the big thing that people worry about is if the smell interferes with someone else’s learning. If someone doesn’t want that smell and they report it to the RA then they’ll go and deal with it.”

Around the same time recreational marijuana use was legalized, Emerson changed its policy regarding the drug. In the past, if an RA (resident assistant) knocked on a student’s door and said they smelled marijuana, the student would immediately have to attend a conduct hearing. Now, a “scent notice” is left on the door, essentially a warning — students only have to attend a conduct hearing if they receive three scent notices.

Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Health Committee in the New York State Assembly and has supported marijuana legalization for decades, does not think universities should be enforcing the federal ban on marijuana.

“Generally I don’t think colleges should be in the business of enforcing criminal law except in cases where the behavior threatens people’s safety or undermines the college’s functioning,” Gottfried wrote in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “I don’t believe any colleges in adult use states have actually lost funding over non-enforcement of Federal marijuana laws. But if a college chooses to ban adult marijuana on campus even when it becomes legal, I would hope it’s treated similarly to a college banning alcohol, rather than in a disproportionate way where simple possession costs students their housing or financial aid.”

Dr. Hawken, of NYU and Cuomo’s workgroup, said that the issue of what legalization means for colleges and students had not been brought to her attention before, and that she could see why some may encourage both strict and lenient enforcement.

“Everybody is concerned about ‘what does this mean for younger brains?’ and the brain science is still emerging and is still unclear. So if there are parents and if there are educators that are concerned I don’t think those are trivial concerns,” Hawken said. “But it is hugely challenging, and you want to make sure whatever regulatory environment you put in...[doesn’t] have adverse consequences either. You don’t want to derail a life and you can end up having a system of regulation in place that does more harm than good.”

Governor Cuomo’s proposal for the details of legalization will move the discussion into a new phase, which may include legislative hearings. A Cuomo spokesperson told Gotham Gazette the governor has been taking a wide variety of perspectives into account as he drafts his plan.

"The state is looking at the legalization of recreational marijuana and evaluating issues affecting all communities, including college communities,” said Jason Conwall, a Cuomo representative.

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Colleges Likely to Continue Bans If New York Legalizes Recreational Marijuana Use Sun, 13 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
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.

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.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

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 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.  

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.  

Eric Neutuch is a freelance journalist.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

The Ups and Downs of Excelsior Scholarship’s Freshman Year and What Comes Next Mon, 29 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
The Excelsior Scholarship’s Academic Requirements Are Far Too High excelsior scholarship academic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

The Excelsior Scholarship’s Academic Requirements Are Far Too High Thu, 20 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Experts Eye 'College Success' for City Students CUNY graduation Macaulay

(2017 Macaulay Honors College commencement, via CUNY Newswire)

Professors, researchers, and administrators gathered Monday morning to discuss issues related to higher education in New York, especially how to ensure that more New Yorkers are college-ready and successful once they enter higher education. The symposium, held at The Greene Space and titled “Moving the Needle on College Success in NYC,” was hosted by the Center for an Urban Future (CUF), a think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity and growing the economy.

After a year of research, CUF is set to release a report in the next few weeks that will describe the key challenges and obstacles that prevent students from graduating college in a timely manner or cause them to drop out of their programs altogether. “Before we close the book on our own research, we really wanted to have this conversation and bring up some of the most amazing and thoughtful people on this issue,” said Jonathan Bowles, CUF executive director.

Fewer than a quarter of the students that are in two-year associate’s programs at the City University of New York (CUNY) get their degree within three years, and affordability and accessibility continue to be problems for many young people seeking a college education.

Douglas Bauer, the executive director of the Clark Foundation, an event sponsor and organization that focuses on helping people out of poverty by supporting nonprofits in New York City, started off the morning’s discussion by stating in his welcoming remarks, “We’re very blessed in the city to have tremendous resources dedicated to higher education, and indeed, some of the best institutions in the country, if not the world, reside here. So, one would think that access to these institutions would be attainable, and sadly that is not really the case.”

“We think in silos, and we operate in silos. We don’t think like a system,” Bauer added, “and the result is that some well-deserving students from underserved neighborhoods in this great city get assistance but not nearly enough.”

A panel discussion followed, with professors and administrators addressing challenges students face in trying to get their degrees, including having to work part-time, not knowing what resources are available to them, and not understanding how to navigate the “hidden curriculum,” or the knowledge and competencies often passed down to students from their family members who have attended college.

“A community college is much more complex from the point of view of the student than Columbia,” said Thomas Bailey, professor of economics and education at Teachers College, the graduate school of education, health, and psychology at Columbia University. “[Community college students] haven’t been marinated in a college-going culture from the time they were two. Their family hasn’t been to college. They don’t have a lot of information or experience to draw on.”

There was widespread talk of the need to create a college-going culture by exposing students from as early as middle school to higher education campuses and arranging for them to speak with graduates about their experiences. This culture could also include pairing up community college students into cohorts before sending them to four-year colleges as a way of encouraging them to graduate, offering more AP classes and College Now courses, amping up academic rigor, increasing advisement to help students fill out paperwork, expanding CUNY fee waivers, and even getting businesses involved by giving them incentives to employ students after they graduate or to offer more paid internships to current students.

“I think it’s not simply a matter of money because the reality is, there’s never going to be enough money,” said David Gomez, president of Hostos Community College.

Public Advocate Letitia James joined the conversation to give remarks at the CUF event. “We must develop support networks, which is so critically important. The goal cannot simply be get our children into college, and then say goodbye. We know that our children are more likely to succeed with strong networks surrounding them, and I refuse to doom children who unfortunately happen to be born in a certain zip code to failure.”

James expressed concerns about the Excelsior Scholarship, a recently passed program ushered through by Governor Andrew Cuomo, which would make CUNY and SUNY schools tuition-free for students who come from families making an annual income up to $125,000 and meet specific criteria such as taking and completing 30 credits per year. The program will be phased in over three years. “One of the issues with Excelsior is that everything is online, and the digital divide along racial lines is very, very real,” James said.

Others have criticized Excelsior, which Cuomo pegged for middle class families given that the state already had a tuition assistance program for the lowest income individuals seeking college access, for not addressing key costs like books, travel, or lodging.

When Gotham Gazette asked panelists about Excelsior, Judith Lorimer, the director of Goddard Riverside’s Options Center, said, “It’s not going to help lower-income students. It’s not free college. The way it works is it’s an additional scholarship on top of TAP and Pell. So for low-income students who receive enough TAP and Pell to cover tuition, it’s not going to affect them at all. [For] middle incomes--$50,000 to $100,000--there’s potential there, but there are a lot of complications and loops. You have to go to school right away. You have to get your 30 credits a year. You have to stay in New York afterwards, otherwise it converts to a loan. All of that is an incredible complication even for the students that it will benefit.”

Phil Weinberg, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning at the New York City Department of Education, summed up the entire debate in a nutshell when he said, “If you’re going to turn to a young person and say, ‘What problem do you want to solve?’ or ‘What plan do you want to have for yourself?,’ you have to have provided that young person with the academic abilities, and social abilities, to be able to answer that question. In many ways, that’s a privileged question to ask somebody. If the answer is ‘I wanna make sure my family pays its rent this month,’ that really limits the choices that young person has...The easiest way to make this better is something that the nation is not willing to do, which is, make this all free for everybody.”

Experts Eye 'College Success' for City Students Mon, 26 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo’s Excelsior Plan Falls Far Short of Making CUNY Free Again cuomo clinton

(photo above via The Governor's Office) (image below by Becca Glaser)

With the regularity of a ritual, every year the advocates of high-quality public higher education make a pilgrimage to Albany. Every year, for over 40 years, the request has been the same: stop de-funding higher education. And nearly every year, for over 40 years, the Legislature and Governor do the same thing: cut funding and approve tuition hikes. As a result, annual per-student government expenditures in New York’s public higher education system languish at an average of $8,830; while private colleges nationwide spend an average of $23,100.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, a college degree is what a high school diploma used to be. Yet, public and private higher education are increasingly separate and unequal -- and increasingly expensive.

It wasn’t always this way. CUNY was free for New Yorkers from 1847 to 1975, when the institution was majority white. The state imposed tuition through a Wall Street-aligned “Emergency Financial Control Board” in 1976. It was also the first year the university system enrolled a majority students of color.

The steady retreat of government from the provision of higher education as a public good has allowed Wall Street loan sharks to advance. Poor and working-class students have been the casualties, stuck relying on loans or longer and longer hours at low-wage jobs to get themselves through school.

The CUNY administration likes to tout the institution as the “American Dream Machine,” proclaiming in sunny subway ads that “80% graduate debt-free.” They don’t mention a darker truth: over 50% of those who enroll don’t graduate at all, falling prey to a lack of financial aid, the high cost of living in New York City, and the frequent unavailability of classes that are required for graduation (students call this “getting CUNYed”).

Facilities across CUNY are falling apart. And the faculty are increasingly overworked and underpaid -- over half of CUNY’s courses are taught by adjuncts making an average of $3,275 per course. With a full-time teaching load, that would bring you $19,650 per year before taxes, and put you in poverty.

This year in Albany was supposed to be different. On April 7, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that a deal had been reached regarding the state budget, including approval for his Excelsior Scholarship program, which is now being billed as the first tuition-free college plan passed by a state.

Cuomo is selling us a bill of goods.

He says his “Excelsior” plan makes higher education free for “middle class” families. He does not mention that it actually increases tuition by $1,000 over the next five years (pending approval from the Board of Trustees). Cuomo claims that low-income students currently can cover their tuition with existing state and federal aid, but this is not generally true. Decades of funding cuts, tuition hikes, absurdly low income limits and other restrictions on aid mean that thousands of students already struggle to pay tuition and their costs of living. Now, thanks to Cuomo, they may have hundreds of dollars more in tuition to pay.

The Excelsior Scholarship is a smokescreen for this backdoor tuition hike that will fall on many of the neediest students, who do not qualify for the aid that Cuomo touts. To maintain eligibility for the scholarship, students must take 30 credits per year -- an average of five classes per semester in a standard school year, which is more than the minimum for being full-time. This is an impossibility for students who must work to provide for their families or care for children. With this inordinate course load, students must also maintain a certain GPA, to be decided by their college.

Undocumented students remain completely excluded from financial aid.

It gets worse. The Excelsior program will also take from the poorest students to fill the coffers of the state. At current rates of enrollment, the $1,000 tuition hike could bring in over $274 million in additional revenue at CUNY alone, given its 274,000 full-time students. It could bring in an additional $400 million from SUNY’s 400,000 undergraduates.

Yet, the state plans to spend only $163 million on the Excelsior Scholarship, leading to a net revenue increase for the government, in part paid for by those students who can’t qualify for the scholarship because they are not able to take five classes at a time.

tuition flatCuomo’s plan aids middle-income students while turning poor and working class students into a profit center, continuing the 40-year trend of reducing access for the poor to public higher education and shifting the funding burden to students. It also makes no provision for badly-needed investment in the CUNY system: including infrastructure, adjunct pay parity, and support for struggling students.

And there’s one more thing. For those who are able to maintain four years of five classes per semester and meet GPA requirements each semester, Cuomo’s plan will force its recipients to remain in New York for the same number of years that they received the scholarship. If graduates move out of state, they will be charged with debt equivalent to the tuition covered by the Excelsior Scholarship, sending more young people into the jaws of the student loan industry.

We have a better idea.

Higher education is a free public good in dozens of countries across the world, all of which are less wealthy that the United States. It used to be the norm here too. It’s time to bring it back.

The Campaign to Make CUNY Free Again is gathering 30,000 petition signatures to place the “Make CUNY Free Again Law” on the ballot in November’s election. Our proposal will do what Governor Cuomo would not. It will end separate and unequal in New York City’s higher education system by requiring the City to ask the State to authorize a tax on the top 1%. The law will guarantee funding to CUNY on parity with the median per-student expenditure in the private sector, guarantee any New York City resident (U.S. citizen or not) tuition-free access to a college education or the remedial programs necessary to prepare for college, stipends to remove poverty as a barrier to student success, and equity in pay between part-time and full-time faculty and staff, and between the public and private sectors.

For 40 years, the political class has pushed higher education farther out of reach for poor and working-class New Yorkers. If our campaign is successful, on November 7, 2017 we the people will go to the polls to have our say: education is a human right.

The Campaign to Make CUNY Free Again is an independent initiative of CUNY students, faculty, staff, and community members in New York City. On Facebook & Twitter @MakeCUNYfree.

Erik Forman (@_erikforman) teaches in the public K-12 and higher education system in New York City and is the co-founder of the NYC Social Justice Curriculum Fair.

Tim Hardin is an Inwood-based activist, Army combat veteran, and NYC DSA organizer who attends BMCC and advocates for a free CUNY, single-payer healthcare in NY, and other local and state grassroots campaigns.

Jennifer Hyman graduated from Hunter College with a BA in Political Science and Philosophy and from SUNY Binghamton with an MA in Social, Political, Ethical, and Legal Philosophy in 2011.

Rosa Squillacote is a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center; Hunter College adjunct professor and alum; and organizer with the CUNY branch of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Joseph van der Naald is a PhD student in the program in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Conor Tomás Reed is a CUNY doctoral student, scholar-in-residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and organizer in the Campaign to Make CUNY Free Again.

Joseph Sellman is a community organizer and regional board member of Citizen Action New York, an active member of Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL-NY), and an ‘83 alum of Baruch College.

Meghann Williams is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at Hunter College and is president of the Hunter College Graduate Student Association.

Tiffany Berruti is a queer undergraduate activists at Hunter College, and is currently involved in NYC DSA.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Cuomo’s Excelsior Plan Falls Far Short of Making CUNY Free Again Fri, 14 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
After the Excelsior Scholarship Cuomo Sanders scholarship

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

Victory for middle class New Yorkers! The state budget finally passed and it includes a number of college affordability reforms for middle class students. Despite some of the shortfalls of these reforms, they are an exciting step forward in reinvesting in the state’s public university systems after years of structural disinvestment, flat financial aid, and tuition hikes.

These reforms must be treated as initial progress toward greater investment into SUNY and CUNY that will truly eliminate cost as a barrier to access and success.

The newly established Excelsior Scholarship will cover the remaining cost of tuition after SUNY or CUNY students have used their Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and their federal Pell grant awards. Only full-time students who come from families with incomes of less than $125,000, who take 30 credits a year, and who graduate on-time will be eligible by the end of a three-year phase-in.

The budget also established a Part-Time Scholarship (PTS) that is available to community college students based on financial need who take more than six credits but less than 12 credits a semester. Students who qualify may receive an award up to $1,500 for up to four-consecutive semesters only, which would likely leave them without any aid to finish the second half of their degree.

The final deal also includes an idea originally proposed by Senate Republicans called Enhanced TAP (E-TAP), which is an award granted to residents attending private college in the state. Students with family incomes less than $125,000 attending non-profit, degree-granting institutions will receive $3,000 in additional state aid. If the student already receives TAP grants, E-TAP will cover any additional funding needed to meet, but not exceed, the full $3,000 allotment. If the student doesn’t receive TAP, E-TAP will cover the full amount.

Further, the same legislation makes it so the school cannot raise tuition for that student during their time of study and the school must match the award granted under E-TAP in an effort to ensure that an increase in state aid doesn’t reduce the institutional aid a student receives. The rules of the program make it so a student would be eligible for a total of $6,000 in E-TAP, TAP, and institutional aid. However, the program does give schools the opportunity to opt-out of E-TAP and simply offer their students regular TAP awards, should they qualify.

While Governor Cuomo and middle class families are celebrating this victory, there is still a great deal of work to do to make this initiative more inclusive, less penalizing, and more accessible to disadvantaged students who continue to struggle.

Under the new plan, for students who cannot take a 30 credit courseload every year, resident tuition at SUNY and CUNY will increase by $200 annually until 2021 while their TAP awards remain unchanged. And unfortunately, the state’s undocumented students are still excluded from receiving TAP, and by extension, any of the new reforms passed this year such as the Excelsior Scholarship, E-TAP, and the Part-Time Scholarship.

For the most disadvantaged, the news and widespread attention of offering free tuition may encourage more low-income students to consider college as an option -- and that’s a good thing. But we know that tuition is only one piece of the financial puzzle to get students into and through school, and for those students with fewer means to cover books, housing, food and more, the scholarship falls short.

For those students who already attend SUNY or CUNY tuition-free because of TAP and Pell, this scholarship does nothing to actually increase their financial aid. This is especially concerning considering that more than half of CUNY undergraduate students come from family incomes of less than $30,000, making them qualified for enough TAP and Pell awards to cover tuition and allowing for nearly 80 percent of students to graduate debt free. Further, recent research from Sara Goldrick Rab from The Wisconsin Hope Lab finds that 20 percent of community college students are hungry and 13 percent are homeless, further supporting greater financial aid for the most at-need students beyond only covering the cost of tuition.

One of the most damaging parts of the program passed in this state budget agreement includes a provision that will convert both the Excelsior Scholarship and Enhanced TAP dollars granted to students into loans should they leave the state after graduation.

Graduates are required to work and live in the state for the same amount of time they received these awards. This will negatively impact about 20 percent of SUNY students and does not account for graduates who leave to join the military, do community service, or have other extenuating circumstances. Instead of penalizing young adult middle class New Yorkers who were able to successfully graduate on-time and benefit from these programs, state leaders should focus on building a more inclusive economy and creating incentives that reward, not punish, Millennial New Yorkers who stay and work in the state.

Finally, we agree with Governor Cuomo when he speaks about dismally low graduation rates and we support him when he talks about needing to close the college attainment gaps. With a less than 6 percent two-year graduation rate at CUNY community colleges and a less than 15 percent graduation rate at CUNY four-year colleges, it’s clear there needs to be a change. This shouldn’t be surprising when considering that more than 80 percent of incoming CUNY students require some type of remedial coursework. But, eliminating tuition and reducing cost as a barrier to access is only half of the equation to increasing graduation rates, especially among those who are the most academically and economically disadvantaged.

We need to address the above shortfalls of the newly enacted college affordability reforms and strengthen the quality and capacity of SUNY and CUNY to better graduate students on time. This includes greater investment to hire more full-time faculty, dramatically bring to scale proven opportunity programs and supports, and offer need-based financial aid to cover non-tuition related costs.

Kevin Stump is Northeast Director of Young Invincibles. On Twitter @KevinStump & @YoungInvincible.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

After the Excelsior Scholarship Tue, 11 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Assembly Members Propose Changes to Cuomo's Free-Tuition Plan skoufis assembly

Assemblymember James Skouis, right (photo: @JamesSkoufis)

More than 30 members of the state Assembly have signed a budget letter to their Speaker, Carl Heastie, outlining an alternative version of the free college tuition proposal being championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo that they want Heastie to adopt for the chamber.

The Assembly members, all Democrats, aim to make Cuomo’s plan more inclusive of the middle class and to ease proposed aid restrictions for the students at New York public universities who stand to benefit from the program.

The letter, drafted by Assemblymember James Skoufis of Orange and Rockland Counties, recommends three changes to the governor’s Excelsior Scholarship, which Cuomo unveiled in January with the help of former presidential candidate and liberal icon Senator Bernie Sanders. It was the first and anchor proposal of Cuomo’s 2017 State of the State agenda.

Cuomo’s plan guarantees free tuition at city and state colleges for students from households earning up to $125,000 per year, and is designed to make college more accessible and improve graduation rates in New York State. While many low-income students are already eligible for significant state aid to afford college, Cuomo said his plan was to ensure many middle class students could also attend college tuition-free.

However, the governor’s plan has been criticized by college accessibility advocates for its restrictive four-year graduation requirements and “last-dollar” provision that supplements tuition costs only after Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and Pell grants have been expended. Currently, students who are eligible for full tuition aid are not compelled to use Pell funds for tuition, rather they can be designated for books, transportation, and other college-related expenses. Many are mindful that tuition is not the only college cost and want to see the governor take that into account.

The Assembly members’ letter asks Speaker Heastie to include in the Assembly’s one-house budget a tuition plan that rejects the "last-dollar" component of the Excelsior Scholarship as well as the 15-credit per semester requirement. With Democrats strongly in control of the chamber, they have a solid chance to see their proposal included in the one-house plan -- which, along with the Senate’s budget proposal, is expected to be released later this month. The Senate is narrowly controlled by Republicans, who have been warm to Cuomo’s tuition-free idea, but expressed concerns about how it will be paid for.

The Assembly letter also recommends the scholarship be applied to students from households earning up to $175,000 per year.

“SUNY and CUNY campuses host an undergraduate population that totals nearly 650,000 students,” the letter states. “Additionally, over 160,000 students are enrolled in Open SUNY and earning online credits towards a degree. Yet, the Excelsior Program is projected to benefit only 32,000 students once fully implemented in fiscal year 2019-20. This amounts to less than 5% of the entire undergraduate population.”

Skoufis has proposed a similar “tuition-free New York” bill, which has been introduced in the Assembly every year since 2014, but the legislation never made it past committee. He says many middle class families are excluded under the current Cuomo proposal.

The Assembly member cited the example of a household with two full-time teachers, each of them earning an average of $77,000 per year. However, he noted, if they live in particular zip codes, they may face high living expenses or exorbitant property taxes. “If you have two teachers in your household, by any standard, that’s a middle class household. Yet, they are going to fall above this threshold and get zero help,” Skoufis told Gotham Gazette.

He also criticized Cuomo’s “punitive” provision that would drop students from the program if their course load fell below 15 credits at any point. According to Skoufis’ bill, students would be required to graduate a two-year college within three years or a four-year college within five years to remain in the program -- it is the equivalent of 12 credits per semester. “There needs to be some flexibility here,” he said.

The proposed changes echo some of the criticisms of the Excelsior Scholarship raised during last month’s joint legislative budget hearing on higher education. Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Assembly higher education committee, said the committee intends to put forward its own proposal, one that addresses all aspects of the higher education budget and the way it impacts CUNY and SUNY schools.

“My feeling is we could perhaps utilize those resources in a way that would help SUNY and CUNY, if the goal is completion,” Glick said, in an interview, of state money that would go toward tuition-free college. “We want to look more broadly at how we can use the same amount of resources to assist a larger number of students to finish their degrees and to do so with little or no debt.”

Other criticisms, which have been raised by higher education committees in both chambers, concerned insufficient state funds going to the schools’ operating budgets, a proposed restriction on TAP funding for private colleges that increase their tuition more than $500, and a “punitive” tithing on money raised by CUNY foundations for tuition assistance.

The Skoufis-led proposal drew praise from advocates. "Fortunately, this plan recognizes the majority of students take more than four years to graduate and that most middle income families still need support beyond tuition relief,” said Kevin Stump, Northeast Director of Young Invincibles, in a statement. “However, while these proposed improvements are a big step forward, the state will still need to address the inadequacies of the Tuition Assistance Program."

In January, the Independent Democratic Conference, which is in a power-sharing coalition with Senate Republicans, released its agenda, which includes an expansion of the TAP. The IDC is at times able to sway the Senate GOP majority into adopting positions that may be more favorable to Democrats. The Assembly Minority also supports TAP expansion.

Prior to a February 15 deadline, Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, received hundreds of letters from legislators recommending measures to be included in the chamber’s one-house budget proposal, which will be discussed by the Assembly over the next two weeks.

Of the Assembly members’ tuition proposal, Michael Whyland, a spokesperson for the speaker, said, “We are discussing the issue with our members.”

When reached for comment, the governor's office stood by the Excelsior proposal, but did not indicate whether Cuomo would be amenable to the suggested changes. "Our goal is to provide as many New Yorkers as possible -- regardless of race or religion; gender or orientation; documentation or ability; Zip code or lineage -- the opportunity to go to college tuition free, and that goal is met with the Excelsior Scholarship program," said Cuomo's spokesperson Dani Lever via email.

A new state budget is due by April 1, which is the start of the next fiscal year. Cuomo is likely to insist that some version of his tuition-free program is in the final spending plan for the state’s 2017-2018 fiscal year.

The story has been updated to include a comment from Cuomo's office.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Assembly Members Propose Changes to Cuomo's Free-Tuition Plan Wed, 01 Mar 2017 05:00:00 +0000