Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1958 Thu, 09 Apr 2020 11:43:51 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Investing in New York City’s Future https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9109-investing-in-new-york-citys-future-college-savings https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9109-investing-in-new-york-citys-future-college-savings 3 chancellor receiving

Saving for college (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Across every borough, neighborhood, and community in New York City, families are united behind one wish: that their children will have the access and opportunity to fulfill their dreams. Making this wish a reality, however, is more complicated.

Increasingly, current household income determines a child’s future. Nationally, fewer than 10% of children from low-income households graduate from college, compared to nearly 80% from high-income households.

While programs like free college and student loan debt forgiveness are being debated nationally, statewide efforts like the Excelsior Scholarship have made college more affordable for some New York students, and CUNY provides affordable tuition options for many students, we need to provide support that can cover both tuition and non-tuition costs that pose barriers to higher education for many families.

To bridge the gap of what’s possible for New York City’s youth, we need meaningful collaboration among government, the private sector, philanthropy, and local communities to provide actual funding and support to increase college and career-training access. We need a universal college savings system for every New York City student.

For many New York families, post-secondary education is not even a possibility due to the astronomical costs. For those that do go, nearly 60 percent end up with debt averaging more than $31,000. There is also a stark socioeconomic disparity in savings: among New York City’s lowest-income neighborhoods, just one out of every 91 kindergarten students had a NY 529 savings account, while one in four kindergartners in the highest-income neighborhoods had a NY 529 account.

Having savings set aside for college and career training, from an early age, can have a profound impact on a child’s ability to attend, graduate, and obtain higher paying jobs. A child in a low-income household with modest savings - between $1 and $500 - has been shown to be three times more likely to go to college and four times more likely to graduate from college than a child without an account. This clearly demonstrates the power of early investment in student potential to succeed in the long term. 

Here in Western Queens, students entering kindergarten in a public school in District 30 have been part of a ground-breaking pilot program that provides them with college savings accounts. Through the NYC Kids RISE Save for College Program, every kindergartener over the past three years has automatically received an NYC Scholarship Account with a $100 initial deposit.  This has been made possible by The Gray Foundation.

While similar programs have been piloted in other cities and states, this program is unique in its community-driven, neighborhood-based approach that allows any person, company, community organization, or philanthropy to provide funding to participating students’ accounts. Some examples include the “Concert for College,” a “Donate the Change” campaign sponsored by Seamless, a $15,000 contribution by Brooklyn parents to participating students at P.S. 92 in Corona and the recent “Funding Long Island City’s Future” campaign. These community scholarships have added an additional $400,000 into student college savings accounts.

In addition, the Save for College Program works by partnering with all 39 elementary schools in District 30, the Department of Education, and community-based organizations. All partners work together to provide financial education and college-and-career resources, meeting parents and students locally to provide wrap-around support and information.

Beyond the monetary value, these investments and resources communicate an important message to our children that the community is supporting their future. This month, the third cohort of kindergartners and new first- and second-graders in District 30 were enrolled in this program. With the new cohort, the total number of students with college savings accounts through this program is more than 10,000.

We believe that every New York City community would benefit from this program. That’s why we are working together to bring universal college savings accounts citywide, to all 83,000 kindergarteners who enter the New York City public school each year. We will work with our colleagues in the City Council, the Mayor’s Office, our partners at NYC Kids RISE, and other philanthropic and nonprofit partners to support the expansion of this program to new communities and boroughs.

This universal college savings and community wealth building initiative will not only reduce the cost burden of higher education but also bring our communities together to invest in our city’s future. Please join us in showing our children that their communities have their backs.

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City Council Members Danny Dromm, Costa Constantinides, Francisco Moya, and Jimmy Van Bramer represent different parts of Queens.

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

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Investing in New York City’s Future Tue, 04 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
As Cuomo Proposes Excelsior Scholarship Expansion, 6 Things to Know About the Program https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9090-cuomo-proposes-excelsior-scholarship-college-expansion-6-things-to-know https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9090-cuomo-proposes-excelsior-scholarship-college-expansion-6-things-to-know free tuition.cuomo

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


In January 2017, Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled the Excelsior Scholarship, New York State’s “free college” initiative. About 20,000 students were awarded Excelsior in the inaugural 2017-18 year. In 2018-19, the number of scholarship recipients rose to 24,000, and for 2019-20, the Legislature projects an increase to 30,000, which will equal no more than 5% of the state’s public college enrollment.    

The 5% figure is small compared to the massive hype that surrounded the program’s rollout. Yet 30,000 beneficiaries is still a large number, exceeding the total undergraduate enrollment at the State University of New York (SUNY) campuses at Albany and Stony Brook, or the combined enrollments at the City University of New York (CUNY) Brooklyn College and City College campuses. 

In his January 8 State of the State address, Governor Cuomo proposed to expand eligibility for Excelsior to students from families with incomes of up to $150,000, which is an increase from the current income limit of $125,000. The governor’s executive budget proposal includes a two-year phase-in, with the cap increasing to $135,000 for the 2020-21 academic year and then to $150,000 in 2021-22. For 2020-21, the total budget for Excelsior would be $146 million, up from an expense of $66.4 million in 2017-18.  

When Cuomo first introduced Excelsior, it was with two purposes—first, to provide relief to families in the middle-class college affordability squeeze, neither eligible for much existing financial aid nor easily able to pay rising public tuition, and, second, to advance educational opportunity and equity to all New Yorkers. “With this program, every child will have the opportunity that education provides,” he proclaimed.  

As a result of Excelsior, the amount of state financial aid distributed to middle-income families has markedly increased. At the same time, aid to the lowest-income students via the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and TAP credit program has grown only incrementally with step-ups to keep pace with tuition increases. 

With Excelsior, the goal of middle-class college affordability has advanced, yet as it has a wider chasm has opened between the resources available to low-income and middle-income students. Excelsior has never offered that much to low-income students and opening up Excelsior to higher-earning families won’t change that. 

Now that the governor is proposing to expand Excelsior, below are six important things to know about the program, including that as it is now constituted, it offers relatively little to low-income students, community college students, and CUNY students.

1. Excelsior does not help low-income students.

The lowest income students in New York State receive enough financial aid from federal Pell grants and the TAP program to cover the full costs of CUNY tuition or SUNY tuition. As “last dollar” awards, Excelsior scholarships only go to students who have tuition balances remaining after exhausting all other aid. 

The lowest income students, already going to public colleges tuition-free as a result of Pell and TAP, typically gain nothing financially from Excelsior. Thus, a “free college” initiative that might seem like a financial windfall for the lowest income students does not actually reward them additional aid. 

This is a shame, as much research, often coming from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, documents that low-income college students’ financial challenges compromise their abilities to stay in college and to progress toward graduation.  

2. Excelsior benefits students from families that are “upper” low-income and middle-income. 

If the lowest-income students don’t benefit from Excelsior, who does? The answer is middle-class students and near middle-class students with tuition balances remaining after accounting for Pell and TAP. My prior reporting profiled grateful middle-class students at Brooklyn College and SUNY Albany for whom Excelsior has been a difference-making lifeline. 

Students from families with taxable incomes of between $80,000 and $125,000 are in the sweetest spot. At $80,000+ in taxable income, families generally phase out of eligibility for Pell or TAP. For these students, Excelsior flips the script from a full tuition bill to none.    

As the income cap has increased to $125,000 from the initial cap of $100,000 in 2017-18, the program has become even more of a middle-class tuition relief program than it was during its inaugural year. 

The proposal to increase the upper income limit to $150,000 would extend the program towards upper middle-class territory. According to the Pew Research Center, a household of three with an income of $50,697-$152,092 is middle-class, with that defined as having an income of between two-thirds and double the national median income adjusted for household size, with the figures modified to $60,49-$181,496 for household sizes of four.  

Data from the NYS Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC), which administers Excelsior, is presented in the scattergram below and shows that the program, during its inaugural year, provided more substantial benefits to students at colleges serving predominantly middle-income and near-middle-income students than colleges serving predominantly low-income students. This is as would be expected given the design of Excelsior, but the magnitude of the program’s bias in favor of middle-income students is especially stark when visualized.     

In the scattergram, each of the state’s public CUNY and SUNY colleges is represented by a point on the coordinate plane. The horizontal axis captures the percentage of students at each institution receiving Excelsior while the vertical axis captures the percentage of students receiving Pell grants. The Pell grant percentage at a college is a strong proxy for the percentage of low-income students at the institution. 

In the scattergram, the lower the Pell grant receipt rate (and by proxy, the more middle-class the student body), the higher the percentage of students who received Excelsior. (The methodology section at the end of the article describes the data sources and their limitations.)  

The lower quadrants of the scattergram are an area worthy of special attention. In 2017, 12 of the state’s public colleges had less than 40% of their freshmen receiving Pell grants. These colleges had the most middle-class student bodies among the state’s public colleges and included schools such as SUNY Geneseo and SUNY Binghamton. At these 12 campuses, 6.3% of students received Excelsior in 2017-18, nearly double the 3.2% statewide rate for the same year—and this was as a number of these campuses enrolled significant numbers of out-of-state students not eligible for Excelsior.  

Meanwhile, as an example from a campus with a high-percentage of low-income students, at CUNY LaGuardia Community College, whose data point is in the upper left corner of the scattergram and where 73% of freshmen received Pell grants in fall 2017, only 0.3% of the student body received Excelsior, far below the 3.2% statewide rate.

The entire scattergram illustrates an inverse relationship between Pell grant receipt rates and Excelsior award rates.

3. Excelsior hardly benefits community college students. 

Excelsior recipients are especially scarce at the community colleges, where 1.7% of students were awarded Excelsior in 2017-18, compared to 4.6% of students at the four-year colleges. 

Excelsior is relatively unique among “free college” initiatives in extending benefits beyond community colleges, and this actually reinforces the historic under-funding of community colleges compared to four-year colleges. Of all 2017-18 Excelsior award recipients,75.7% were students at four-year colleges and 24.3% students at community colleges, even though community college students are about half of the state’s public college enrollment. 

The vast differential in award rates between community college students and their four-year college counterparts is driven by two factors. First, community college students are more likely to benefit from fully-covered tuition via combined Pell and TAP awards than are four-year students. This is in part because the lower tuition amounts at the community colleges generate fewer cases where tuition gap-filling Excelsior awards are needed. Second, Excelsior rules that require full-time attendance, continuous enrollment, and earning a heavy 30 credits each year eliminate from eligibility many community college students.  

In dollar amounts, $12.2 million in Excelsior funds, representing 18.3% of the total Excelsior budget, went to community college students in 2017-18, with the balance of $54.2 million, or 81.6%, going to four-year college students. 

4. Excelsior hardly benefits CUNY students. 

Excelsior also does not register much of a presence at the CUNY colleges. In 2017-18, the 18 CUNY colleges enrolled a 16.3% share of Excelsior scholarship recipients, with the balance of 83.7% of recipients attending SUNY colleges, even though CUNY students comprise 38.8% of the state’s public student enrollment. The number of recipients is small at SUNY but minuscule at CUNY. 

Excelsior recipients are virtually non-existent at some community colleges. CUNY Hostos Community College had just 12 awardees, and CUNY Kingsborough Community College had only 42. 

The key driving force for the differential is that CUNY students are more likely than SUNY students to have lower family incomes for which Excelsior offers no additional financial benefits. CUNY students also are more likely than SUNY students to be ineligible by attending part-time or by not earning 30 credits annually.  

As depicted in the chart below, 0.4% of CUNY community college students received Excelsior in 2017-18, compared to 2.0% of CUNY senior college students, 2.3% of SUNY community college students, and 6.7% of students at SUNY four-year institutions. SUNY four-year college students also received financially larger awards, on average, though this is likely the result of these students receiving awards for two semesters at particularly high rates rather than just awards for single semesters.

excelsior college

In dollar amounts, $9.9 million in Excelsior aid went to CUNY students compared to $56.4 million to SUNY students. The discrepancy between the amounts to CUNY and SUNY students is steep.  

The bar chart below is another telling visualization, presenting the imbalanced Excelsior awards for all of the state’s public colleges. The schools with the highest percentages of students receiving Excelsior awards tend to be mostly SUNY four-years. The schools with the lowest award rates are mostly CUNY two-years.

In theory, “free college” seems like a neutral idea—free to all!—yet in reality, Excelsior’s rewards are targeted. The by-product of Excelsior’s income and academic eligibility criteria is a funding imbalance between CUNY and SUNY constituencies.

Today, the imbalanced distribution of Excelsior awards is almost certainly more biased in favor of SUNY four-year schools than it was in 2017-18. The SUNY four-years likely have the highest percentage of students enrolled from families with incomes of between $100,000 and $125,000, an income range presently covered by Excelsior that was not during the program’s inaugural year. If Governor Cuomo is successful in expanding the income range another $25,000 to $150,000, then the imbalance in the distribution of funds between CUNY and SUNY would likely deepen further.

Data from the completed 2018-19 academic year, when the income cap was raised by $10,000 to $110,000, could shed light on the impact of marginally increasing the income cap but so far HESC has yet to release that information to the public.

5. The Excelsior program is not incentivizing more students to enroll in college.  

One redeeming value for Excelsior could be that its simple message of “free college,” broadcast widely by Governor Cuomo and in the news media, may be incentivizing more New Yorkers, especially of limited means, to enroll in college and to achieve college degrees. 

Research from Hieu Nguyen, a researcher in the Department of Economics at the University of Tennessee, suggests that, at least in its first year, Excelsior did not catalyze an enrollment boom. According to Nguyen’s 2019 article in Education Economics, which compares enrollment patterns in New York State with enrollment patterns in other states using a quasi-experimental statistical design, Excelsior had a “negligible effect” on boosting higher education enrollment in the state. 

It should not come as a surprise that Excelsior didn’t jumpstart college enrollment given that it has such restrictive eligibility criteria and offers no financial benefits to most low-income students. 

The research, however, is not definitive, as Nguyen’s research explored just Excelsior’s first year. There may have been an Excelsior-related bump in college enrollment in the program’s second or third years, once there were longer periods of time for the message of “free college” to influence high school students’ developing attitudes towards college-going.

6. Excelsior may have positive effects on student retention and on-time graduation.

Another positive feature for Excelsior could be that it contributes to increased retention and graduation rates.  

Yet there is no conclusive research on Excelsior’s impacts on retention and graduation. In September 2019, the governor’s office announced that the two-year graduation rate for Excelsior students at SUNY community colleges was 30% compared to a non-Excelsior graduation rate of 11%. For CUNY community college students, the two-year graduation rate was also 30%, compared to 12% for non-Excelsior students. This is a positive sign, yet Excelsior and non-Excelsior students differ in substantive ways, most notably by income level, and more rigorous research is required, which is only possible if more Excelsior data is released.  

In his State of the State address, Governor Cuomo declared, “The national progressive dream of free college tuition is a New York reality.” Yet for New York State’s “free college” program to be a strong model to other states and cities, there must be reforms to the entire New York State financial aid system such that it distributes more aid to low-income students, rather than introducing a costly subsidy to families in the $125,000-$150,000 income range.  

*****
Methodological Notes:
The HESC data on the Excelsior Scholarship awards from 2017-18 is posted on the Open NY website. The figures for SUNY Tompkins County Community College (TCCC) are “pending final eligibility determination,” according to HESC (email correspondence), and have been excluded.    

For each campus’ total number of undergraduate students, the fall 2017 NCES IPEDS enrollment figure was used. The number of Excelsior recipients at each college was divided into that college’s fall 2017 IPEDS enrollment figure to calculate the percentage of students at each campus receiving Excelsior. 

This is an imperfect approach, as the Excelsior scholarship headcount figures in the HESC dataset are described as being for both semesters of the 2017-2018 award year rather than just for the fall semester. An alternative method would be to rely on the IPEDS unduplicated annual headcount as the denominator for calculating the award rate percentages. This alternative approach would have generated lower award rates and an even more pronounced gap in award rates between community college and four-year college students.   

This alternative approach was not employed because the unduplicated annual headcount figure is a noisy variable skewed by summer session enrollments, non-degree enrollments, and other factors. In some cases, unduplicated annual headcount figures are twice the fall 2017 headcount. 

As a consequence, the percentages of students receiving Excelsior cited in this article are not precise but are approximate ones employed to show relative differences.  

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Are you a student, parent, school official or other person who has an experience with the Excelsior Scholarship that you’d like to share? If so, contact Eric.Neutuch@gmail.com.

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Eric Neutuch is a freelance journalist and former CUNY administrator, 2009-2017.

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

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As Cuomo Proposes Excelsior Scholarship Expansion, 6 Things to Know About the Program Wed, 29 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
For Future Generations, New York City and State Must Significantly Increase CUNY Investment Now https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8985-future-generations-new-york-city-and-state-increase-cuny-investment https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8985-future-generations-new-york-city-and-state-increase-cuny-investment kids Jumaane school

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


I’m a CUNY graduate twice over – my bachelor’s and master’s degrees are both from Brooklyn College. Between the seven years I took for my four-year degree, and the four years for my two-year degree, I’ve spent about as much time on a CUNY campus as anyone. My professors, my fellow students, my overall CUNY experience shaped who I am and what my driving principles are -- what I’ve been fighting for as an activist and an elected official.

Now, as tuition rises and investment stagnates, I fear that students across our city will be denied that transformative, invaluable, CUNY experience.

As outlined in my recent report, government funding for CUNY has failed to keep up with booming enrollment. From 2008 to 2017, per-student funding from the state dropped 18 percent, adjusted for inflation and enrollment growth. This continued underfunding has hamstrung CUNY’s ability to provide a quality education for thousands of students, most of whom are people or more color and graduated from our city’s public schools.

In fact, the student body of CUNY appears directly related to its funding. When CUNY was first established, it was tuition-free, in recognition of the need for accessible, high-quality public education. But as the complexion of CUNY students changed, so too did the policy, with black and brown student majorities made to bear the brunt of the expense as the balance of funding CUNY shifted away from government and toward the student population. This has naturally also contributed to the overall challenges of financing this “public” education.

With limited resources, CUNY has seen its operational quality threatened as the system has to rely on underpaid adjunct faculty to teach its students, many of whom work additional jobs to pay their bills. CUNY has also been forced to cut student support services—like academic and mental health advisors or hours at writing centers—and course selections, leaving many students unable to register for a mandatory class.

Financial shortcomings are also evident in CUNY’s physical infrastructure—broken toilets, exposed wiring, vermin outbreaks, flooding, and broken elevators further detract from the educational experience of today’s students.

Unfortunately, the students who suffer the most from underfunding are those who most need our help. CUNY’s constrained budget provides limited opportunity for it to help support its most vulnerable students, many of whom are food insecure, homeless, or come from low-income families. While tuition remains comparatively low, CUNY students who receive tuition assistance still must pay for major expenses like housing and food, forcing them to work for pay and spend more time away from their studies. Without proper support, CUNY students are finding it hard to graduate.

However, there’s a silver lining: CUNY knows what works and just needs the resources to do it.

CUNY has created innovative programming, like ACE and ASAP, which have already boosted graduation rates and improved educational outcomes. Other programs aimed at providing support for specific marginalized communities, including the Black Male Initiative and Citizenship! Now, help campuses retain and support students of more color, who make up the majority of CUNY’s population.

These programs and others are part of why CUNY campuses are among the best nationwide for raising the economic statuses of the system’s most vulnerable students—a pathway and an opportunity for lower- and middle-class students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. It’s also critical to know when something doesn’t work, like the Excelsior Scholarship, which made headlines but not real change, as nowhere near enough students saw relief from ever-escalating costs of a college education.

To ensure CUNY can support its mission of serving as a vehicle of social mobility that provides quality education for all New Yorkers, New York State and New York City must increase investment in public higher education. Crucially, the city must specifically increase its funding for CUNY senior colleges, which have historically received limited city funding, to better match their contribution to our city’s economy and culture.

This month, CUNY’s staff and faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), ratified a new contract that secured historic gains for nearly 30,000 workers. But any discussion of increasing wages must be coupled with calls to address the underlying issue: the need for New York to increase its financial commitment to public higher education.

Our state and city leaders are now at a critical juncture. They can either decide to build on their investment in higher ed and ensure students receive a quality affordable education, or allow an invaluable, historic educational institution to decline, along with the opportunities it creates.

With greater funding, CUNY will be able to increase the percentage of its faculty that works full-time and raise salaries for remaining adjuncts. It can also expand its student tuition-assistance programs to include more part-time students and even currently incarcerated individuals. And it can continue to build on its world-class programming, providing an invaluable education for generations of New Yorkers like it did for me and so many others already.

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Jumaane Williams is the Public Advocate of the City of New York. On Twitter @JumaaneWilliams.

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

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For Future Generations, New York City and State Must Significantly Increase CUNY Investment Now Tue, 10 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
With Push from Cuomo and Funding from Vance, New York College-in-Prisons Program is Flourishing https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8959-5-years-after-abandoned-cuomo-plan-college-in-prisons-program-is-flourishing-behind-bars-vance https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8959-5-years-after-abandoned-cuomo-plan-college-in-prisons-program-is-flourishing-behind-bars-vance bpi photo 3

(photo: Bard Prison Initiative)


In February 2014, early in his first reelection year, Governor Andrew Cuomo made what proved to be a bold proposal to reduce recidivism by creating opportunities for higher education in state prisons, seizing on an enduring problem at the intersection of social and criminal justice reform efforts. But he had misjudged the political landscape and the announcement was met with significant backlash followed by an uncharacteristic reversal for the seasoned New York powerbroker.

It took nearly four more years, and litigation with the world’s largest banking institutions, before a similar plan was recrafted and set in motion again. Two years into the rebooted plan, the state’s College-in-Prison Reentry Program has served 506 incarcerated students. Sixty-two of those students completed a degree behind bars before being released.

It was a cold Sunday morning in 2014 when Cuomo, then a first-term Democrat, was flanked by clergy and a smattering of elected officials as he announced a plan to provide state funding to college programs in 10 New York State prisons, an approach he said would cut recidivism and save taxpayer money. He was speaking at an event hosted by the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus of the State Legislature at Wilborn Temple, a black Pentecostal church near the State Capitol in Albany.

“In this great state of New York, this laboratory of democracy, this progressive capital of the country, there is nothing that we can’t do when we’re willing to work together,” he said to fanfare at the end of a speech that tied together employment, education, and incarceration while invoking familiar themes from the Civil Rights Movement and the New Testament.

But by the time the state budget was passed six weeks later, Cuomo had pulled the idea in the face of intense criticism from conservatives, including his Republican challenger Rob Astorino, who said the state should not be funding college for convicted criminals while law-abiding students struggle with the rising costs of higher education.

It wasn’t until August 2017 that the governor launched a second attempt, this time in partnership with Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, announcing a five-year $7.3 million initiative to fund higher education programs in prisons using money raised not through taxes, but through criminal asset forfeitures. The money was handed over by banks as part of settlements in the wake of the financial crisis late last decade, and is controlled by Vance’s office, which now oversees the college-in-prison program, run by the CUNY Institute of State and Local Governance.

The largest of the state’s prison-based college programs, the Bard Prison Initiative, is now the subject of a heralded four-part documentary series, “College Behind Bars,” which first aired Monday, November 25, to praise from many advocates and elected officials across the country.

First announced as part of Cuomo’s State of the State agenda in 2016, the College-in-Prison Reentry Program is intended to help standardize and provide consistent funding for college programs operating in state prisons, which lost their main sources of public financing when state and federal grant programs were peeled back in the mid-nineties. To date, no state budget funds have been allocated to the program, a spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget told Gotham Gazette.

Despite the controversy around the program’s inception, prison reformers, elected officials, graduates of the offerings, and the new PBS series are attempting to show the value of higher education in prisons -- both for incarcerated people on the threshold of reentry to the larger society, and for state coffers.

“Going to the college courses, interacting with the professors, engaging theories and texts that I would have never come across in the life I was living beforehand made me want to be a better person and made me want to go back to my community and become an asset and not a liability,” said George Chochos, a BA-recipient through the Bard Prison Initiative, which offers courses in six state correctional facilities and is now partially funded through asset forfeitures.

“It provided hope in a hopeless situation,” he told Gotham Gazette by phone after work Wednesday evening. Chochos is the assistant director of program management at the Georgetown University Pivot Program, a business certificate program for formerly incarcerated individuals. “It’s one of the few things inside of a prison that allows you to break away from the monotony of the prison system, to where your identity is a student not a number,” he said.

The College-in-Prison Reentry Program is available to students regardless of the crime they were convicted of, requiring only that they have fewer than five years remaining in their sentences, according to Danny Frost, Vance’s director of communications. Seven colleges and universities were selected to receive funding through the program to deliver courses and reentry services at 17 New York State correctional facilities.

It is intended to create 2,500 seats in prison-based college over five years. Two years into the project, nearly $2.8 million has been paid out to the schools and the CUNY Institute of State and Local Governance for program evaluation and support.

In a speech last fall, Vance said “the program is tailored by design to cover New Yorkers who are on that reentry journey -- who in just a few years will be expected to compete in a labor market with community members who were not incarcerated.”

Studies have shown that higher education in prison can significantly reduce recidivism rates and leads to better outcomes for people exiting prison, including in terms of employment. But it has faced a rocky history in New York State and nationally, where critics say it rewards criminal behavior in a system created to penalize it.

“I’ve been incarcerated for 13 years, and from my experience I can tell you prison is here to punish us, it’s here to warehouse us. But it’s not about rehabilitating, it’s not about creating productive beings, it just isn’t,” said Rodney Spivey-Jones, a BA student in the Bard Prison Initiative, in the first episode of College Behind Bars, which is directed by Lynn Novick.

The Bard Prison Initiative, launched in 2001 by Bard College, is the largest recipient of College-in-Prison Reentry funding at $1.3 million over the five year period (2017-2022). It became internationally famous in 2015, when the BPI debate team at Eastern New York Correctional Facility beat Harvard’s.

The six other schools receiving grants through the program are Jefferson Community College, Medaille College, Mercy College, Mohawk Valley Community College, New York University, and Cornell University in partnership with Cayuga Community College. To receive the money, the schools must be able to match the grants with other funding sources like charitable foundations or federal grants.

Each school offers different courses and degrees in line with the curriculum standards offered on their main campuses. Five offer associate’s degree programs and two offer bachelor’s degrees. They provide between 1 and 10 courses per semester, with most offering more than six.

College programs have been operating in New York State prisons since 1876, but they received a boon in the mid-twentieth century through post-World War II charitable initiatives and federal funding like the GI Bill, according to a report from John Jay College’s Prisoner Reentry Institute. In the mid-1970s, the establishment of federal Pell grants and the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) for low-income students allowed prison-based college programs to significantly expand. Nationwide, the number of programs exploded from from 12 in 1965 to nearly 350 in 1994, the report says.

But in 1994, the funding rapidly dried up. That year Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (often referred to as the 1994 crime bill), which barred Pell grants from going to incarcerated students. The following year the New York State Legislature rescinded TAP for students in state prisons. The results were dramatic: in the spring of 1995, 25 college-in-prison programs served 3,445 students in New York; a year later, only 256 students were being served in four prison-based programs across the state, according to the John Jay report.

Since then, higher education in New York State prisons has relied mostly on private funding. In 2015, the Obama administration launched the Second Chance Pell pilot program, which allow Pell grants to be distributed for prison-based programs to test their impact on post-release outcomes. A number of the schools participating in the College-in-Prison Reentry Program have used the pilot to match grants from the Manhattan District Attorney, according to Vance’s office. In May, the federal Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos announced the Second Chance Pell pilot would be expanded.

As of November 26, 44,710 individuals were incarcerated across the state’s 52 prisons, operated by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), according to a department spokesperson. At the beginning of the month, 1,580 of those individuals were enrolled in college programs in 29 facilities, DOCCS representatives said.

When the College-in-Prison Reentry Program was launched in 2017, there were just over 1,000 students already in prison-based college programs, according to a press release announcing the program.

Providing access to higher education in prisons has for decades been a contentious issue in the state, where it is often expressed in political discourse as a trade-off between support for “law-abiding” students struggling to go to college and “criminals” receiving taxpayer benefits.

In 2014, two days after Cuomo first announced a plan to fund prison-based programs with state funds, then-State Senator Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican, released a petition opposing the plan.

"I support rehabilitation and reduced recidivism, but not on the taxpayer's dime when so many individuals and families in New York are struggling to meet the ever-rising costs of higher education," said Grisanti in a press release launching the petition. (Grisanti lost his reelection bid that year and was appointed by Cuomo to the New York State Court of Claims in 2015. He now serves as a state Supreme Court Justice in Erie County.)

Reducing recidivism has always been a focal point of college-in-prison programs, and fewer individuals living in state prisons means taxpayers are spending less on detention. Cuomo, in 2014, said the math favors more prison-based programs, which studies have shown significantly cut recidivism rates for participants. Despite that outlook, he did not put up an aggressive fight for the program when crafting the state budget with legislative leaders that year (at the time, the Assembly was controlled by Democrats, while Republicans controlled the Senate with help from a breakaway group of Democrats).

In 2014, it cost the state $60,000 annually to incarcerate one person and approximately $5,000 to educate them, Cuomo said when announcing the later-abandoned initiative. But supporters say higher education in prison has a good return on investment, both for the individuals served and in terms of recidivism. An oft-cited 2013 RAND Corporation study found that people participating in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison and 13 percent more likely to find employment upon release.

“Providing the opportunity of a college education to the men and women in New York State prisons is a no brainer – it saves the state money in the long run while benefiting our society and those looking to make a better life for themselves and their families,” wrote Caitlin Girouard, a spokesperson for the governor, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “College degrees for people exiting prison provide them with a real chance at getting a job and staying out of the cycle of crime, and we are proud that in New York we’re helping make that a reality.”

The governor’s office did not respond to questions about whether there are plans to expand the initiative, including through the state budget.

The Vera Institute for Justice is expected to release an evaluation of the College-in-Prison Reentry Program in mid-2023, which will analyze recidivism rates for participants, according to a spokesperson for Vance. According to the latest data available to DOCCS, people released from state prisons in 2012 had a 43 percent chance of returning to prison within three years, in most cases for violating parole conditions (since 1996 the recidivism rate has hovered around 40 percent).

A DOCCS representative wrote in an email that recidivism rates could fall to as low as 16 percent for people who have attended college in prison, citing “decades of data.”

“I remember when I first got in, calling my mother and hearing the joy in her voice. Neither of us knew where it would take us,” Chochos said. He was accepted into Bard’s program in 2004 at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison, four years into his term. He went on to receive an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s in social studies from Bard, and a masters from New York Theological Seminary before being released in 2011.

Since exiting the state prison system, Chochos has received two master’s degrees from Yale Divinity School, graduating with honors in one of them in 2016.

“It gave me a new language by which to contextualize my own life and the choices that I made,” Chochos said of the education he received behind bars. “It encouraged me to dream for the first time.”

Prison-based college programs serve a more diverse student population than traditional college programs. According to the 2019 John Jay College report, citing DOCCS data from 2016, the state prison population is “25 percent white, 48 percent black/African-American, and 23 percent Hispanic/Latino,” with a similar distribution among the subpopulation participating in college programs. By contrast, “[w]ithin the SUNY system, 57.3 percent of undergraduates are white, 12.3 percent Hispanic, and 10.8 percent are black/African American,” the report notes. (Three of the colleges involved in the College-in-Prison Reentry program are part of the SUNY system.)

Two bills in the State Legislature could impact the future of prison-based college in New York. One sponsored by Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry and Senator Velmanette Montgomery, two New York City Democrats, would restore eligibility for TAP, the state-funded tuition assistance program, to students in prison.

Another sponsored by Aubry and Senator Jamaal Bailey, a Bronx Democrat, would establish a commission on post-secondary education in prisons to evaluate and make recommendations on higher education in the state prison system. But they face an uphill battle: the commission bill stalled in committee last year, according to a spokesperson for Assembly Member David Weprin, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Correction.

Meanwhile, the New York City Council has committed city funding to education programs for people involved in the criminal legal system as part of a $13.5 million investment in alternatives to incarceration in the current fiscal year. This year, $850,000 was allocated to support education for formerly-incarcerated individuals after being released. Of that funding, $250,000 will go to the Bard Prison Initiative to support reentry and alumni career development activities in prisons for the 6-12 month period before release.

The remaining money will go to the College and Community Fellowship, which provides educational support for women upon reentry and serves approximately 120 women, according to a spokesperson for Speaker Corey Johnson.

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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With Push from Cuomo and Funding from Vance, New York College-in-Prisons Program is Flourishing Mon, 02 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
The Right to a Free and Quality Public Higher Education in New York https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8956-right-to-free-quality-public-higher-education-in-new-york-cuny https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8956-right-to-free-quality-public-higher-education-in-new-york-cuny cuny com 12

(photo: The City College of New York)


CUNY has long been the pride of New York City and its cradle of opportunity. But at a recent legislative hearing on higher education in Brooklyn, we heard from teachers, administrators, and students about a harsh reality: After years of state underinvestment in public college, our CUNY system is teetering on the edge of crisis. 

Both of us have been blessed with a CUNY education. Yet both of us see firsthand the heartbreak and struggle that many students face when they seek to advance themselves through higher education. In the end, some graduate. Some don’t. And some never get to try because it’s just not affordable.

Students desperately need relief. CUNY’s six-year degree completion rate is only 55%, and financial strain is one of the main reasons students drop out. In a 2017 report on college success, the Center for an Urban Future shared that 75% of dropouts at Kingsborough Community College had a financial “red flag” in their accounts such as owing money or loss of scholarship. To make matters worse, a staggering half of all CUNY students experience food insecurity, and many struggle with housing insecurity or even homelessness. 

There’s a reason for this dire situation: Tuitions have risen steadily year after year, as the share of the budget that comes from tuition has grown from 20% to almost 50% over the past 30 years.

In other words, students are bearing the burden of our failure to invest in quality public higher education.

This penny-pinching on the part of New York has led to further consequences. Adjuncts, upon whom CUNY increasingly relies, are grossly underpaid, even with a new contract that would increase the minimum pay per course. The ratio of full-time faculty to students is significantly higher than national standards. Facilities have deteriorated and class sizes have become overcrowded. These trends cause lower retention rates and greater time to graduation.

This is a downward spiral that we must stop. 

In today’s age, a higher education is no less necessary to succeed in most fields as a high school diploma was two generations ago. And a college degree is a pathway to economic opportunity and financial security: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a person with only a high school diploma has nearly double the unemployment rate of a college graduate and earns on average 39 percent less per week. 

A CUNY education has been shown to be one of the most successful ways to bring a student from the bottom quintile in family income to the top—with a mobility rate of more than three times those of the most elite institutions.

The struggle of our CUNY students and underinvestment in our CUNY system mirrors the budget cuts for public schools across the nation that occurred after the Great Recession. State funding for public schools across the country is $9 billion below 2008 levels, adjusted for inflation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

Recognizing the necessity of free college, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature implemented the Excelsior Scholarship in 2017, aiming to make four-year college tuition-free for many. 

Yet as of 2018, only about 3% of the state’s undergraduates benefited from the scholarship. The majority of applicants who applied were rejected because they didn’t meet the onerous credit requirements.

New York is missing out on future climate scientists, doctors, and other leaders because students can’t pay for rent, food, and a MetroCard without a job, which makes them unable to access or retain the Excelsior Scholarship. 

It’s time to transform New York State with a robust promise for free higher education. We did it once before with K-12 schooling and we should boldly aim to do it again by making New York the first state in the country to constitutionally guarantee a free, quality public college education.

Higher education should not be a luxury for the few but a tool for many. Let New York lead the way and make our state a model of what a commitment to public education in the 21st century should be. 

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State Senator Andrew Gounardes represents parts of Brooklyn and is an adjunct professor at Hunter College. Timothy Hunter is chair of the University Student Senate and a CUNY Student Trustee. On Twitter @agounardes & @thunter_tim.

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

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The Right to a Free and Quality Public Higher Education in New York Mon, 25 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
‘Free College’ at One SUNY School Shows ‘Excelsior’ Progress and Problems https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8517-free-college-at-one-suny-school-shows-excelsior-progress-and-problems https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8517-free-college-at-one-suny-school-shows-excelsior-progress-and-problems gov cuomo excelsior

(photo: governor's office)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eric Neutuch is a freelance journalist.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrowing that divide depends on CUNY.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Opportunity Ahead for the New CUNY Chancellor Tue, 30 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Colleges Likely to Continue Bans If New York Legalizes Recreational Marijuana Use https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8197-colleges-likely-to-continue-bans-if-new-york-legalizes-recreational-marijuana-use https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8197-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.

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by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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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 https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8171-to-help-more-students-succeed-in-college-reform-remedial-education https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8171-to-help-more-students-succeed-in-college-reform-remedial-education class2018 laguardia comm

(photo via LaGuardia Community College)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eric Neutuch is a freelance journalist.

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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