It’s Not Always Good To Be First: New “Free” Tuition Plan Is Fundamentally Flawed

Governor Andrew Cuomo. Photo via

Co-Executive Editor

By now it’s likely you’ve heard of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s newest initiative, the Excelsior Scholarship. In case you haven’t, the scholarship was introduced early on in the budget season and approved earlier this month by the state legislature. Excelsior will provide “free” tuition to New York State residents who attend a public institution, so long as their total household income falls below $100,000. This number will rise to $125,000 by 2019.

Many are praising Cuomo and the state of New York for being the first to provide tuition-free education, but if you read into what the scholarship entails, the cons quickly outweigh the pros.

If you ask me, the scholarship represents a publicity stunt by a governor who hopes to run for president and knows that this will look fantastic on his POTUS resume. It’s not for the greater good of NYS – if it were, it would be more comprehensive, more inclusive, and it would pass what I’m going to call the “Good Deed Test.”

Yes, I just made that up, but I feel as though it will best sum of my thoughts on ExSchol. (Cool nickname, right?)
In order to pass the Good Deed Test, ExSchol must:

1)Positively impact a majority of the targeted demographic.

2)Make financial sense.

3) Be cost effective for those who choose to reap its benefits.

Hurdle number one: does ExSchol positively impact a majority of the targeted demographic? Well, first let’s determine what the targeted demographic actually is. One would assume it’s safe to say that the scholarship will benefit any and all citizens who choose the route of higher education in the state of New York, but this is not the case. Only students going straight from high school to college or university can apply for ExSchol, and of those students, only those who plan to attend a public institution for either two or four years can further qualify.

Additionally, students must maintain full-time status during their time in higher ed, as well as meet certain academic standards which were not set by the state, meaning they will vary across institutions. According to the New York Times, 90 percent of the State’s community college students would not qualify for ExSchol for one reason or another; that number drops but remains substantial for the State’s four-year institutions, where 60 percent of students would also fail to qualify.

On top of that, some of the poorest students in the State would fail to see any benefits from ExSchol, given that it wouldn’t kick in until after all other loans and grants were considered. Most of the State’s low-income students are have their tuition covered through outside funding sources, and would benefit more from financial assistance that contributed to the cost of books, housing and food.

I feel it’s safe to say the ExSchol fails to pass the first requirement in the Good Deed Test, as it fails to positively impact the majority of the targeted demographic.

Next, ExSchol must make financial sense, as should any policy at the state or federal level.

In its first year, the scholarship is estimated to cost $87 million, with that number rising to $163 million by 2019. In the first four years of the program, SUNY and CUNY schools will not be asked to contribute to the costs of the scholarship. However, schools were given approval to raise their tuition by $200 a year over the next three years, which could impact students who don’t qualify for ExSchol.

The tuition assistance provided by the scholarship has been capped at $5,500 per year, which leaves the possibility of students still having to pay for a portion of their education, especially since the average tuition cost at SUNY and CUNY school ranges between $4,350 and $6,470.

The state seems to have covered its own butt by capping the amount a student can receive, and by setting that cap lower than some of the costs some students might face.

Assuming every dollar poured into ExSchol finds its way back to the state somehow, it seems as though the financial aspect of the scholarship is sound.

Congrats, ExSchol, you’ve passed the second requirement of the Good Deed Test.

Now for the tiebreaker, the third requirement: is ExSchol cost effective for those who qualify and choose to take advantage of its benefits?

One of the biggest and most surprising caveats to the free tuition bill when it passed was a provision that said any student who takes advantage of ExSchool must remain in the State of New York after they graduate.

Students who qualify for ExSchol must live and work in NYS after graduation for as many years as they benefitted from the scholarship, meaning that any student who decides to attend a four-year SUNY school can budget out a total of eight years of their life to living in NYS. Cuomo defended the provision by saying that if the state of New York is going to pay for a portion of your education, the least you can do is stick around long enough to figuratively pay back the favor.

I say that because tuition makes up a fraction of the cost of higher education. New York owes me a hell of a lot more if they want me to commit another four years of my life to them. The sole purpose of college is to allow students the opportunity to pursue any career they want, and what if that career pulls them to Alaska, or England, or China?

It’s not fair to give students an opportunity to achieve their dreams if you, as the state, are going to the limit the extent to which those students can dream. “We want you to be successful, we really do, but only if you’re going to do it in New York.”

So what happens if a student decides to pursue a career elsewhere after graduation? ExSchol would cease to exist if a student leaves the state or drops out of school, meaning that any financial aid provided would convert into a student loan that the student would then have to pay back to, guess who, the state.

When I was applying to college in the fall of 2012, I narrowed my search down to two schools: SUNY Plattsburgh, and The College of Saint Rose. Plattsburgh offered me a lot, plus I would have been able to commute from home (a five minute walk) – these two factors brought my cost down to about six grand a year.

So what did I do? I chose Saint Rose and got stuck with a bill of $20,000 a year. I eventually became a Resident Assistant, which significantly lowered my costs, but still, that’s a lotta dough.

Why did I do this? Several reasons – I needed to get out of Plattsburgh and experience something new; I needed to get out Plattsburgh and experience…; I need to…you get it.

My point, would NYS paying for my tuition through ExSchol have influenced my decision? No. My tuition was covered already, and I didn’t want to stay at home. I would have qualified, and I still could have qualified four years later, but do I regret my decision? Absolutely not.

While I may be just an exception and not a rule, I do not feel as though the Excelsior Scholarship will be beneficial in the long run, and the only thing I can do is wait for the day that everyone else realizes it too.

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