Governor Cuomo’s proposal to offer free tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools to all New York State residents was passed by the state legislature in early April, making college a more affordable option for lower- and middle-class families. The Excelsior Scholarship will be awarded to SUNY and CUNY students whose families make below $100,000 starting in the 2017-18 academic year, with the income threshold incrementally increasing to $125,000 by 2019. To qualify for the award, one must be a resident of New York State, take thirty credits of coursework per calendar year, and reside in New York after graduation for the number of years one received the scholarship.
Critics of the proposal have complained that it does not do enough to address college costs, as room and board charges in the SUNY system are nearly twice that of tuition. They have also pointed out that Excelsior’s status as a “last-dollar” program, which kicks in after other scholarships and grants have been exhausted, would render it almost useless to very poor students who already have the benefit of Pell Grants or state aid. Additionally, others have said that the requirement of living and working in New York State upon graduation is unfair as it limits mobility.
Such criticisms are largely misguided. Given the increasing problems with college affordability, it seems unwise to complain when something is being done to address the issue. Room and board charges can be a problem for students of limited means, but every little bit of financial assistance does help. A SUNY education is already among the most affordable degree programs in the country, and to receive an automatic 30 percent discount on this cost is nothing to sneeze at. This is especially the case since merit scholarships and the like are awarded after the Excelsior Scholarship, so it is possible to receive even more financial aid that you are not required to pay back. If one contributed nothing to their own education and received no additional scholarship money, they would have approximately $57,000 left to pay after a four-year college education. In comparison, the cost of attendance for just one year at one of New York’s top private schools, like Colgate and Hamilton, already exceeds that figure.
The residency requirement may seem like a burden, but it seems reasonable for the state to expect something in return if they are offering to help finance someone’s college education. College students typically intern at companies that are relatively close to their college to begin with, and are not likely to look for work out of state immediately after graduation. As a result, this requirement is much less of a hindrance than some might think. In addition, this program may play an important role in revitalizing the depressed economy and job market of upstate New York. By generating a fresh pool of qualified job applicants every year, the state is creating an incentive for companies to create jobs in New York, instead of sending them overseas or to other parts of the country.
Finally, a Pell Grant can be used to cover housing expenses such as room and board, while the Excelsior Scholarship only covers tuition. Thus, the program would actually be of significant benefit to poor students. More importantly, though, Excelsior does something which has not been accomplished by other government aid programs: it helps the middle class. Federal grant money is often awarded only to the poorest students, typically those with annual household incomes below $30,000. However, families with incomes between $30,000 and $125,000 per year still often have trouble financing a four-year college education. In recent years, college has evolved into something only the very rich and very poor could readily afford—this program will attempt to change that and ease the burden for the middle class.
The Excelsior Scholarship program is not without its flaws, but it makes one of the most affordable college degree programs in the country even easier to finance. It may help revitalize the economy of Upstate New York, and it helps middle class students find a way to make college workable for them. It is, without question, highly beneficial for college students in New York.