Amid great fanfare, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced earlier this year his State’s Excelsior Scholarship plan. It would, he and others have claimed, open educational opportunities to needy scholars and offer an answer to the growing burden of student debt. It won the benevolent blessing of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a latter day progressive saint if ever there was one. Since, it has passed into law. As details have become clear, so have the facts that it will benefit fewer scholars than it claims, saddle others with debt, and perhaps turn the state’s already beleaguered university system against them.
This program does very little indeed to make college free, as the governor and others have claimed. It offers a maximum of only $5,500, less than the state system’s already low college tuition of about $6,400. If a student has other scholarship monies at his or her disposal, Pell grants or the like, the program will only make up the difference and only for tuition. That leaves the scholar dependent on other resources for room, board, books, transportation, and pocket money. Especially with public universities, these expenses are the greatest by far. To protect the state further, the program, insists that students receiving Excelsior monies maintain a course load of at least 30 credit hours a semester, a heavier load than most full-time students carry these days. It demands that recipients work in New York after graduation for at least as many years as they enjoyed their Excelsior Scholarship. If the student fails to meet any of these, and other requirements, the recipient must repay all the monies received through the program.
While it seems helpful on its face, the program will tempt many into debts they would not otherwise incur. Its problem emerges from how it will discourage the practice needy students have long used of working their way through college, making room for employment in their schedule taking a year or two more than the usual four to get their degree. This option will, of course, remain open, but because the Excelsior scholarship insists on 30 credit hours a semester, the only students who can use it and also combine education with a job are those with either super-human energy or who live in a world with days longer than 24 hours. Rather than give up the benefit, many who might have worked will turn to debt, borrowing for the bulk of their expenses.
For some, the scholarship will at least defray some of the debt burden. For most, however, something will interrupt that heavy schedule, perhaps a family emergency or simply a wrong course choice resulted in a failing grade. Such interruptions would seem to be the norm these days, since less than half those at New York’s public universities finish in four years. Because any shortfall from the scholarship’s conditions turn it into a loan, the state’s seeming largess will only add to the debt it initially drove these students to incur. Even many who avoid such interruptions will see the scholarship turn to debt, unless after graduation they are willing to turn down good out-of-state jobs in order to comply with requirements that they remain in New York for some years.
While Excelsior will burden many in these ways, it will also make it harder for needy students to find a place in the state’s system. These colleges and universities, already on shoestring budgets, struggle under pressure to keep tuition low. The monies they get from this source barely cover the cost of educating their undergraduates. With an Excelsior scholar, they will come under still more pressure to make do with the $5,500 maximum the state allows. Having negligible endowments and less from Albany in other ways, they have little with which to fill the financial gap. To avoid operating in the red, they will face a tremendous temptation to admit other students, those from New York State, who can foot the bill for the already low tuition, and especially those from out of state, including overseas students, who pay a higher level of tuition. No one administrating one of the state’s public universities would or could draw a formal line against Excelsior students, but it is easy to see how, under intense financial pressure, they will tilt away from them.
Without judging the wisdom of a free tuition goal that Messrs. Cuomo and Sanders think so worthy, it should be apparent that the Excelsior plan hardly goes very far in that direction. It may well work to keep New York State’s liabilities under control while raising Andrew Cuomo’s progressive profile, but it will do so by hurting many more would-be scholars than it will help and probably put the university under enough pressure to limit rather than expand those student’s options. At that, it is too much to pay, no matter how well controlled. It is a sad affair indeed.