Ismary Calderon spoke at a rally about the Excelsior Scholarship held by CUNY Rising outside BMCC.
In the beginning of 2017 when Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his Excelsior Scholarship for CUNY and SUNY – billed as the nation’s first tuition-free college program at the state level – newspapers around the state of New York, including this one, had more questions about the initiative than answers.
Would the program also include part-time students, undocumented students and students who must take time off between semesters? Is it possible that the plan would help middle-class families more than it would poor households? Did the program come with additional funding to cover the needs of additional students?
QUESTIONS ABOUT PLAN
These were just some of the questions journalists asked at the time, raising concerns with Cuomo’s program as details emerged. For example, the scholarship requires a student to take 15 credits per semester, leaving out students who may have to hold down jobs while also attending school part-time. The program also requires students to live in New York State upon graduation, or have the scholarship converted into a loan that must be repaid.
Now, at the beginning of the 2018-19 academic year, a study has confirmed that the program has served far fewer students than Cuomo’s announcement suggested when he unveiled the program alongside US Senator Bernie Sanders.
“According to our analysis, barely 4,000 of the 242,000 students attending public colleges and community colleges in New York City have benefited from New York’s Excelsior Scholarship program,” Tom Hilliard, of the Center for an Urban Future, wrote in a report this August. “Only 20,086 students statewide received an award from the Excelsior program – or just 3.2 percent of the 633,543 undergraduates statewide. But our analysis shows that significantly fewer students in New York City have benefited. Of all students state wide who received an Excelsior Scholarship, only 20.7 percent attend CUNY institutions – even though CUNY students make up 38 percent of all undergraduate enrollment in the state.”
The report continued, “Overall, 3,335 students attending CUNY’s senior colleges received awards from the Excelsior program – or just 2.3 percent of all those enrolled at CUNY’s senior colleges. Meanwhile, 820 students attending CUNY’s community colleges benefited from the program – just 0.9 percent of the 95,951 community college students enrolled at CUNY. At four of New York City’s community colleges, 100 or fewer students have received an Excelsior award: Hostos Community College (34 students receiving an award), Guttman Community College (36 students), Bronx Community College (61 students), and Kingsborough Community College (100 students). At all seven community colleges in New York City combined, just 820 students received an Excelsior Scholarship. In fact, four senior colleges in upstate New York each obtained more Excelsior Scholarships than the entire community college system in New York City.”
The numbers aren’t any brighter at CUNY’s four-year campuses, either, according to Hilliard’s report. “Meanwhile, only two of CUNY’s senior colleges – Hunter College and John Jay – saw more than 3 percent of enrolled students obtain an Excelsior award,” he wrote. “At 10 CUNY schools, fewer than 2 percent of enrolled students received funds.”
Upon the study’s release, students themselves began to voice their frustration. “I came here thinking I’ll have a better life here not having to stress about school and paying [tuition] after I heard about the Excelsior Scholarship,” John Jay College student Jesus Lopez said at a rally organized by CUNY Rising outside Borough of Manhattan Community College on August 23. “Sadly, sitting in the library looking at the requirement, it hit me in the face. I was not going to get that no matter what. It hit me because I knew I wouldn’t get my dream.”
At the rally, Ismary Calderon, also a student at John Jay, said, “We were promised free college for all, but instead we were slapped with an outrageous tuition bill, dubious academic advisement and years of crippling debt.” Brooklyn College student Corrinne Greene said, “I took a semester off. A very common thing that happens to college students. For that reason and that reason alone, I don’t qualify for this program. Leaving me with virtually no state aid.” And Baruch College student Razieh Arabi said, “On my campus, I asked, ‘Why did I get rejected?’ because I met most of the criteria to receive the scholarship. No one knew why, and I ended up questioning the New York State Higher Education Corporation. [After] a long debate, they said the reason was that I am not on track to graduate for a four-year degree.”
The study calls into question the extent to which the Excelsior Scholarship addresses the demand for free college education, which had been a popular policy point in Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. Marketwatch noted that 70 percent of students who applied for the scholarship were rejected. While the “governor’s office pushed back on the findings, noting that New York public college population used in the report takes into account students who wouldn’t have qualified for the scholarship…the large share of applicants rejected from Excelsior indicates that officials did not communicate the requirements properly,” Marketwatch said.
In an interview with Politico, Hilliard noted that the requirement that students be “super full-time” was partially to blame for the problem. “The scholarship’s 30-credit-per-year requirement is a kind of ‘super full-time’ standard that is not achievable for students who need to hold jobs to supplement living costs not covered by their scholarship,” he added. “Excelsior is a ‘last dollar’ scholarship, meaning it covers remaining tuition after other forms of aid have been taken into account. It does not cover expenses such as room and board or fees.”
For the PSC, these numbers are proof that there is no quick fix that would make CUNY more affordable without addressing the long history of underfunding public higher education by the state. In addition to joining students in demanding more state funding for CUNY and SUNY, the union has been advocating for Governor Cuomo to sign the CUNY and SUNY “maintenance of effort” (MOE) bill, passed by both legislative houses earlier this year. The bill would require each annual New York State budget to include funds for CUNY and SUNY to cover the inflationary increases in operating costs at the four-year colleges, such as rent, utilities and contractual salary increases. The governor vetoed a similar measure in 2015 and again in December 2017. While the state budget for the 2019 fiscal year has already been finalized, enactment of the new MOE bill would provide ongoing stability to the senior college budgets and mandate inclusion of additional funding to cover the costs of future contracts with the PSC.
“We’ve been trying to beat the austerity mold since Occupy Wall Street, and even before that,” Benjamin Shepard, PSC chapter chair at City Tech, told Clarion. “What the union has been asking for – what we need – is fully funded CUNY, which means that CUNY is not budgeting on the backs of students. Many of my students struggle: working a couple of jobs while supporting their parents and trying to be full-time students, they eventually run out of financial aid. To help those students, I think we need more of a commitment to an affordable CUNY for urban students.”
Shepard noted that one major roadblock to getting Albany to provide full funding to CUNY was a conceptional misunderstanding by state leaders. Too often, he said, CUNY is portrayed as a cheap, public giveaway to the needy, rather than a celebrated university system like California State University, where Shepard previously taught.
“We need to view CUNY as an intellectual and creative powerhouse, an economic engine that is bringing innovation, and brings people into the workforce of our global city,” he said. “We don’t need to look at it like welfare, but that’s often how Albany looks at it. But our students aren’t that. They’re anything but that.”