Proposed changes to New York's so-called "free tuition" program should be taken off the table to allow lawmakers proper time to do their homework on the subject.
The Excelsior Scholarship financial aid program is currently available to SUNY and CUNY students whose families earn up to $125,000 a year. Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to expand the income eligibility to $135,000 in 2021 and $150,000 the year after that. He also wants to increase the aid available to students who choose to attend private colleges in New York.
The Empire Center for Public Policy, however, reports that the program is cumbersome to administer and hurts the state's private colleges and universities. The Empire Center would rather see the program phased out and the entire budgeted amount put into the state's Tuition Assistance Program, arguing that TAP has a proven record of helping students with demonstrable financial need. Expanding the income limit for Excelsior, Empire Center argues, will simply give a "generous tuition break to even more students who clearly don't need the help."
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The state had estimated in 2017 that about 52 percent of New York students would be able to take advantage of Excelsior, but the Empire Center reports that scholarships have thus far been awarded to less than 5 percent of total SUNY and CUNY undergraduate enrollment.
The private school counterpart to Excelsior has also had questionable results. Wells College reported in 2018 that it opted out of the Enhanced Tuition Awards program after one year because it wasn't working out well for the school or its students. The application process was frustrating for students, Wells said, and those receiving awards were required to be academically eligible at the end of the year, meaning that accounts had to be credited before eligibility had been earned, leaving the school no way to accurately predict how much money would be coming in.
Lawmakers shouldn't agree to expand the program just because it's on Cuomo's wish list, but it's also too early to say that it should canceled altogether. It should be set aside to allow time for education officials and lawmakers to examine it more thoroughly for changes to make it more helpful for students and also as cost-effective as it can be on behalf of the taxpayers who are ultimately covering the costs.
The Citizen editorial board includes publisher Michelle Bowers, executive editor Jeremy Boyer and managing editor Mike Dowd.