Free College For All? What the Excelsior Scholarship Means for New York Families

Over the past few months, New York has been recognized for its trailblazing free tuition plan. Unlike other states who’ve offered free community college to its residents, New York is the first state to offer students the opportunity to attend two-year or four-year colleges for free. While it’s an incredible step forward in terms of making college education affordable, many are left wondering about the intricacies of the program and the requirements necessary to make tuition free college a reality for their families.

The Excelsior Scholarship is part of a system of New York State Student Financial Aid programs. The scholarship covers the tuition costs for students attending eligible CUNY or SUNY schools whose families make less than $100,000 per year. By the 2019-2020 school year, the income maximum will be raised to $125,000 per year. To be eligible for the scholarship, students must complete 30 credits per year and remain in good academic standing. They must also be on track to complete their studies in two to four years, depending on the type of degree. Year-round New York residency is a requirement of the scholarship.

After completion of the degree, recipients of the Excelsior Scholarship must also commit to living in New York State for a time equivalent to the number of awards they received. While employment after degree completion is not required, if a student decides to work during that period, they must be employed in New York State. For example, a student who received an Excelsior Scholarship for four years to complete a bachelor’s degree must commit to living and working in New York for four years after their degree completion. If not, the scholarship converts to a loan.

The Excelsior Scholarship has been touted as a huge victory for many, but critics call attention to the type of student who would benefit from the program. Due to the nature of the requirements, the Excelsior Scholarship is accessible for “traditional” students rather than New York’s “typical” students. Traditional students are those who attend college immediately upon graduation from high school, carry full course loads in both fall and spring semesters, and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in four or five years. Other definitions also include being financially dependent on others, not having children, considering college to be their full-time career, and being employed part time, if at all, during the academic school year. In CUNY and SUNY community colleges, 43% of students are part time, and would not be eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship.

Governor Cuomo is a strong proponent the program and has continuously praised the Excelsior Scholarship for aiding middle and working class students. Under the program, it’s estimated that nearly 1 million students, representing 80% of all middle-class students attending CUNY or SUNY schools, would be eligible for free tuition. In understanding the requirements of the scholarship and the profile of the typical New York college student, the program seemingly attempts to make college more affordable rather than more accessible. However, this does not take away from the program’s potential to change thousands of lives across the state. The legacy of the Excelsior Scholarship program will depend on its rollout this fall and many will be looking to New York to see if this is a viable option for other states to adopt across the country.

Students can apply for the Excelsior Scholarship for the 2017-2018 school year starting on June 7, 2017. For those interested in learning more about the Excelsior Scholarship, please visit https://www.ny.gov/sites/ny.gov/files/atoms/files/ExcelsiorScholarship_Toolkit.pdf.