Education

Free Public College Has Arrived In New York — With Some Big Catches

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Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to waive tuition fees for some New Yorkers at any two- or four-year state college, first covered in the Voice in February, has survived the state budget brawl — but it comes with some unexpected and alarming caveats.

The plan, called the Excelsior Scholarship, will be phased in over the next three years beginning this fall but has some noticeable differences from the $163 million program Governor Cuomo first conceived of. That version came with no major catches for those students who would be eligible for it.

Not so in the final version. The most glaring addition: a requirement that students live and work full-time in New York state following graduation for as many years as they received aid, lest their scholarship be converted into a loan they’ll have to pay back.

Officials from the governor’s office told Chalkbeat that the loan conversion was justified: If New York is going to pay for kids to go to school, then its economy ought to benefit from that investment.

“Why should New Yorkers pay for your college education and then you pick up and you move to California?” said Cuomo on a call with editorial writers from around the state, as reported in the New York Post.

But the rule could potentially mean students have to turn down opportunities — the things that a college education is supposed to create — to avoid student debt, the burden the program is meant to alleviate in the first place. Suppose a graduate wants to begin work at a job out of state, one with a higher salary, say, than what they can get here?

State officials said on Monday that they plan to include provisions that will prevent loan conversion for students who pursue advanced degrees out of state, provided they return to New York afterward. An exception will also be made for students who join the military.

“Forcing college graduates to live and work in New York is wrong. A grant should be a grant, not a loan with an escape clause,” wrote Tom Hilliard in an op-ed for the Center for an Urban Future. Other experts say that forcing participants in the plan to stay in New York incentivizes unemployment; students who can’t get a job in the state could opt to remain here, potentially on public benefits, to avoid debt instead of moving elsewhere to work and pay taxes. So far, the plan still includes no additional provisions to support colleges as they prepare for an influx of students, or to help make sure participants understand what they’re signing up for.

Though marketed as free college, the program is more accurately described as a “last dollar” plan, meaning it will award eligible students a scholarship to fill in gaps left over after they receive state and federal financial aid, including New York’s Tuition Assistance Program and Pell Grants. By 2019, any student from a family that earns up to $125,000 will be eligible to apply.

Other additions to the program include a minimum GPA requirement and on-time graduation, something many CUNY students struggle with. Students must also take fifteen credits per semester, meaning part-time students, many of whom belong to a growing sector of nontraditional students (those who work full-time, have children, care for elderly family members, or are not straight out of high school, for example), are excluded entirely. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, three-quarters of undergraduate students were not recent high school graduates in 2011, the most recent year for which such data is available. Undocumented students are also excluded. Additional money was allocated to allow students who opt to attend private universities to use the existing Tuition Assistance Program for added help, something the state senate and private college officials across the state pushed for. Those students will receive up to $3,000 and must also agree to live and work in the state after graduation.

And the final bill still does nothing to help students whose tuition is already covered in full by state and federal aid; those students are often forced to take on loans to pay for room and board, food, textbooks, and student fees — all expenses the governor’s program ignores. John Aderounmu, 20, a junior at Hunter College and member of the Campaign to Make CUNY Free Again, says many CUNY students will be ineligible.

“Not many students are going to have that gap covered because most already have their financial aid to cover their tuition,” said Aderounmu. Those students, he said, must work jobs to pay for rent or books and, as such, take fewer than the required thirty credits per year.

Other states and cities host similar programs for community colleges that come with no income restriction, no requirement to stay in the state, and considerable academic support that begins at the high school level and continues through college graduation, particularly in Tennessee. There, community college is free for any high school graduate in the state regardless of income. Oregon and the city of San Francisco have similar programs. Rhode Island is considering a bill that would make tuition free at two-year colleges only.

The Campaign to Make CUNY Free Again, a coalition of CUNY students and faculty, slammed Cuomo’s program in a release, rejecting his characterization of the program as “free college,” one which happens in tandem with a planned tuition hike for CUNY schools over the next five years. For students unable to meet the terms of the Excelsior Scholarship, college is getting less affordable.

In a release, the group said that the governor’s plan “aids middle-income students while turning poor and working-class students into a profit center, continuing the forty-year trend of reducing access for the poor to public higher education and shifting the funding burden to students.”