BY KATHY KAHN
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pitching the Excelsior Scholarship program to state lawmakers, partnering with former Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) as the pair debuted the free tuition program on January 4.
The cost to implement to the program is calculated to be $163 million per year by 2019. Nearly 1 million college-bound students would be eligible for Excelsior if approved by the NYS Legislature.
Excelsior proposes to pay whatever amount is left after the student applies for a PELL Grant and TAP (Tuition Assistance Program), both federally funded programs. For those who want to room and board on campus, that expense will be borne by the student. The cost of books would remain the same for all students, Excelsior Scholarship enrollees or private payers.
With 64 campuses across the state and close to 450,000 students enrolled, SUNY projects a 10-12 percent increase in the number of enrollments if Excelsior passes the Legislature’s litmus test. Whether or not a student is accepted will still depend on their grades and SAT scores, and SUNY is making no plans to alter curriculum standards.
The Excelsior Scholarship Program will be part of Cuomo’s 2017 proposed budget, the highlights of which he will unveil in his State of the State address over a three day period, with a scheduled stop in Westchester at SUNY Purchase on Tuesday, January 10.
There are mixed feelings about Cuomo’s proposal, from elation to exasperation.
SUNY Chair (and former State Comptroller) Carl McCall and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher gave a joint statement to the media: “Governor Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship Program takes college affordability to a new dramatic level. This plan positions New York State as the first in the nation to not only provide free tuition for low- and middle-income families…but goes a step further, incentivizing full-time enrollment and college completion—both of which are proven game changers in students’ success…SUNY strongly supports it.”
The Empire Center for Public Policy questioned the college readiness and completion rates for students who would be eligible under Cuomo’s proposed plan: “Is there a need to spend millions of dollars to make college affordable when it’s not actually a big problem? It’s an expensive way to get your point across.” (Currently, the SUNY system is $6,470 a year for four-year college, with a two-year stint costing approximately $4,350.)
Locally, Assemblyman Karl Brabenec (R-97th District) called Cuomo’s program “misguided, irresponsible and the kind of nanny-state socialism that perpetuates New York’s image as ne of the most expensive states in the nation to live and operate a business.”
Local Democrats mostly praised Cuomo’s initiative.
Although Cuomo stated Excelsior would be the first program of its kind in the nation, it is not. California, which introduced free state colleges back in the mid-1970s, is beginning to back away from free tuition, citing the “ruinous” cost to improving campuses and upgrading technology that have made it impossible to continue. New York State did offer free tuition at CUNY campuses, a program that ended in 1976 due to ongoing fiscal crises at both city and state level.
BY KATHY KAHN