By KATHLEEN BRADY
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced that through the new Excelsior Scholarship program, tuition in the state's two- and four-year public colleges will be free for students in families earning less than $100,000 this year. The income limit will rise to $125,000 in 2019. Of the more than 460,000 families with college-age students in New York City, 84 percent are eligible for the program.
The state now spends about $8,860 for each student in the State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) systems, compared with about $650 for students in private, non-profit colleges.
Presidents and administrators of Catholic colleges in the Archdiocese of New York are wary of Excelsior Scholarships, but they say the measure, which was part of the state budget passed in April, came too late to have a serious impact on their enrollments for this fall. They point out that affordability and access are not the only issues. Private colleges graduate more students in four years—57 percent in 2015—compared with a 50 percent rate for SUNY, 21 percent for CUNY and 38 percent for proprietary schools, which offer specific career training programs.
Catholic college administrators wonder whether the promise of free tuition will eventually discourage low-income students from enrolling in Catholic colleges. They believe that downstate institutions will weather the challenge better than upstate ones. Above all, they are skeptical that the scholarships will help as much as expected.
"We are not interested in the program. It's redundant given what we already do. We already make a six to one match on any money our students get from the state," Fordham University spokesman Bob Howe said.
"There are onerous restrictions on Excelsior Scholarships. I don't know if the administrators of New York state know how vulnerable this low-income population is. These scholarships could put them in a worse situation than they are in already," he said.
The sudden rollout so late in the registration cycle surprised many and caused admission offices to scramble to deal with it. May 1 was the reply date for September admission, by which time students and families have usually completed their plans to finance schooling.
Excelsior money is applied only to tuition, not to fees, room and board. It requires recipients to take an average of 30 credits per year, including during the summer and January semesters, which can be a hurdle for those who need to earn income from jobs outside of school. After graduation, they must work as well as live in the state for as many years as they were on the program. If they relocate, say for career advancement in Connecticut or to care for a sick parent in New Jersey, the scholarships are converted to loans that must be repaid.
"Free tuition sounds good, but the details are in the fine print," said Bill Bisset, vice president of enrollment management at Manhattan College in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
"It's tough to compete with free, and the CUNY and SUNY schools are very good," he said. He noted that small upstate institutions with a smaller pool of applicants are more concerned about Excelsior and they are likely to be affected sooner.
Cuomo and the lawmakers tried to offset potential harm to private colleges through the Enhanced Tuition Assistance Program (ETA). Low-income students attending private schools can participate if schools match their $3,000 state grant and freeze tuition for recipients. In contrast to the Excelsior program budget of $87 million for the coming academic year, the ETA budget is $19 million. So far, 10 of the state's 17 Catholic institutions of higher education have signed up, all with limits on how many ETA scholarships they can grant. Thirty of the more than 100 private colleges and universities in the state have enrolled.
New York also offers the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), which consists of grants that qualified college students can use at any nonprofit institution in the state. State Sen. Jeffrey Klein, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester, said, "Between the innovative Excelsior Scholarship and the crucial increase to TAP assistance, students from both public and private institutions in New York State will now be less burdened by student loan debt upon graduating."
At the College of Mount St. Vincent in Riverdale, president Charles Flynn asked, "What family with an income of even $150,000 can afford college? We are lucky because we exceeded our enrollment goals for the fall, but really good schools around the state are reporting serious problems. Does this ill-designed and ill-conceived program promise continued vitality? Why do we have no trouble funding prisons upstate but we can't fund small upstate colleges? They are the only vital segment of the upstate economy."
He concluded, "It's nice to have a government strategy, but it is nicer if it also works. People's lives depend on policy. This has made me feel quite immoderate."
Because the Excelsior Scholarships were included in the state budget, legislators who voted for the budget in effect voted for the scholarship program as well. State Sen. Jeffrey Dinowitz, whose district includes Mount St. Vincent and Manhattan College, said, "I hope it won't adversely affect independent colleges. I went to Lehman College, also in my district, when it was free but independent colleges did just fine then. I don't know why there should be a change. We have to watch that carefully so the measure can be altered if need be. In terms of making Excelsior Scholarship Students live in the state, if the taxpayers invest in them the taxpayer should get the benefits of their tax dollars and what they add to the economy after they graduate."
Conceding that the requirement for a full course load could be a problem, he commented, "Changes can be made. I view the Excelsior Scholarships as a pilot right now."