NY free tuition program sees mixed results in first year

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) rolled out a free tuition program earlier this year with much fanfare, but initial results have been mixed, Anya Kamenetz reports for NPR.

State officials set high expectations for the Excelsior Scholarship when they launched it. They characterized it as the largest free tuition program in the United States. The governor's office estimated that 940,000 students would qualify. More than 75,000 students applied.

Now that the school year has started, the governor's office has released early data on results of the program. Around 22,000 students will receive the Excelsior Scholarship—less than 6% of the roughly 400,000 in-state students in New York's two public higher education systems, Kamenetz notes.

The reason for such a small participation rate is that Excelsior is a last-dollar scholarship, similar to free-tuition pioneer Tennessee Promise. Excelsior funding only kicks in after a student has exhausted other sources of aid, and it only covers the cost of tuition.

Students expressed concerns about the program to the Albany Student Press. Some were frustrated that they wouldn't be able to use Excelsior funding to help pay for living expenses. Studies have found that the cost of books can rival the cost of tuition for some students—and so can the cost of housing.

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Other students chose not to participate in Excelsior because their tuition had been covered by other sources of aid in previous years—but then later learned that tuition at some state schools would increase by $200.

However, there are positive signs as well. When all sources of aid are considered, 53% of full-time, in-state SUNY and CUNY students now attend college tuition-free. Part of the reason relatively few students are participating in Excelsior is that New York already offers "generous" financial assistance through other programs, according to Morley Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition.

A spokesperson from the governor's office says officials "look forward to working with students in the coming years to expand awareness of the program so as many students as possible are able to graduate college on time and debt-free" (Kamenetz, NPR, 10/3; Coombs, Albany Student Press, 9/5).

Cost is the No. 1 reason students decline their dream schools


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