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Why New York’s free college program is still costing its students

Being a student is expensive beyond tuition — if you can even afford to be full-time.

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Welcome to Laboratories of Democracy, a series for Vox’s The Highlight, where we examine local policies and their impacts.

The policy: Fully paid tuition for students from families that earn under $125,000 per year

Where: New York

Since: 2017

The problem:

In April 2017, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo inspired soaring headlines with the stroke of a pen. By signing his Excelsior Scholarship program into law, New York became the first in the nation to cover four years of college tuition for low- and middle-income students. The program, which targets students from families that earn under $125,000 per year, was quickly hailed as the nation’s largest “free tuition” experiment. “In this economy, you need a college education if you’re going to compete,” Cuomo said of the law.

Cuomo had reasons to be enthusiastic. College access has become an urgent issue for policy experts concerned about economic equity. Look no further than the student loan crisis, in which millions of Americans have been saddled with a total of $1.6 trillion in debt; the diverging gap between the rich and poor; or the US’s middling upward mobility scores, which show American children are very likely to remain in the same income bracket as their parents. With 35 percent of new jobs demanding a college degree at minimum, access to higher education has become a proxy for economic inequality writ large.

The Excelsior Scholarship applies to the state’s two public college systems, where in-state tuition alone costs around $7,000 per year at these schools, a figure that usually doubles when factoring in student fees, housing, and other expenses. Excelsior doesn’t pay tuition costs directly — rather, it covers any tuition costs left over after other financial aid programs. In exchange for funding, Excelsior students commit to enrolling full-time in college and working in New York after graduation for a certain number of years. Although Excelsior is designed to be more widely available than a traditional academic scholarship, Excelsior students are expected to maintain at least a 2.0 GPA in order to receive funding.

Other states are following. New Mexico is weighing a program that would fund two- and four-year public college for full-time students regardless of their economic background. California has its own bill that would fund full-time students through the Cal State university system.

But three years later, as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are touting student loan forgiveness and universal college access on the presidential campaign trail, New York’s Excelsior experiment has underwhelmed on some expectations, leading critics to dismiss its claims of “free college” as symbolic. Its questionable success underscores that when it comes to college costs for low- and middle-income students, tuition is only one small part of the problem.

How it works:

When Navjot Kaur, a first-generation college student from Queens, enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, she joined an experimental program called CUNY ASAP. In addition to meeting the cost of tuition, CUNY ASAP offered her a free MetroCard to cover transport, paid for the cost of her textbooks, assigned her a personal academic advisor, and placed her in community meetings with other low-income CUNY students.

But after Kaur finished her two years there, she transferred to Baruch College, a CUNY senior college where she decided to major in political science. Baruch didn’t offer CUNY ASAP, so Kaur turned to Excelsior to supplement the state and federal aid she received.

Kaur first heard about Excelsior when it was announced in 2017, and applied the year after. “I told my sister, this sounds like a really good program, maybe I should give it a try,” she said. She fit the profile: She was a full-time student, and her parents earned well below the $110,000 income threshold for that year. But when she visited the financial aid office at Baruch for help, she was told the program wouldn’t consider her. She says she never received an explanation why. (When asked for comment, Baruch responded with a link to the Excelsior Scholarship requirements page.)

Kaur’s confusing experience might not be typical — she thinks it was a side effect of a rushed rollout — but Excelsior has rejected many other students. In 2018, only 32 percent of the 63,599 students who applied for Excelsior funding were granted it, according to a report compiled by the Center for an Urban Future. Part of that is a function of the budget — the state allocated only $71 million for the program in 2017, whereas this year it set aside $119 million — but the estimated 30,000 current Excelsior students is still well below the “hundreds of thousands” the state initially referenced. In almost every case, applicants were rejected not because they lacked financial need but because they didn’t meet the program’s per-year credit requirements.

“Excelsior isn’t something that fits a part-time student’s schedule,” Kaur said. “We have a lot of nontraditional students that come through the university. They’re working moms, they’re from nontraditional families.”

The exclusion of part-time students — who make up 33 percent of all CUNY undergraduate students and who are more likely to be first-generation college students — is one problem. But a compounding variable is that Excelsior, unlike CUNY ASAP, only covers tuition costs. Students need to pay for transportation, housing, advising, and textbooks on their own —costs that require a job to pay off.

“Tuition is expensive but it’s actually not the main expense in students’ lives if they are going full-time,” said Marcella Bombardieri, who wrote a 2017 report on part-time college students for the Center for American Progress think tank. “Those extra costs absolutely are what is holding students back from enrolling full time.”

To some extent, these twin problems have become self-fulfilling: Low-income students who don’t have their living expenses covered need to work in order to pay them off, but Excelsior’s credit requirements make balancing work and school especially difficult.

In this regard, however, Excelsior isn’t unique. Most states with two-year College Promise programs also require students to enroll full time, and only a few — namely the Kalamazoo Promise program in Michigan — allow their financial aid to be used on costs outside of tuition. Bombardieri notes that treating full-time enrollment as a blanket goal simplifies the needs of part-time college students — and risks leaving them out of financial aid programs altogether. “There are some part-time students who would maybe go full time if they realized they could get more financial aid,” Bombardieri said. “But there are tons of part time students who are going to school part time for other reasons. Maybe they get health insurance through their job, maybe they’re taking care of their families.”

To his credit, Cuomo has responded to some of these criticisms. He loosened the rules surrounding Excelsior’s 30-credit-per-year rule. Further, Cuomo announced his intention to relax Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) requirements for part-time students, a move that would help to cover at least one student living expense.

This January, Cuomo also proposed expanding the family income threshold for Excelsior from $125,000 to $150,000 — an important benefit for middle and upper-middle-class students, to be sure, but one that continues to sideline the needs of students from the lowest income brackets. That is a perennial problem of statewide attempts to meet tuition needs. Because few of these programs account for other living costs, much less academic advising, the poorest students are often overlooked. (The Excelsior program did not respond to a request for comment.)

For this reason, students like Kaur are leery of terms like “free college” to describe efforts like Excelsior. “It looks like the governor is on board with free college, but he’s actually putting up roadblocks to it,” Kaur said. “Higher education doesn’t need to be a political issue. It’s just a human rights issue.”

Still, in a 2019 study, the Education Trust concluded that New York, through its collage of financial-assistance programs, is one of the three most affordable states for low-income students enrolling in public colleges. That does not negate the fact that low-income New Yorkers continue to struggle to pay for school. But it does hint at a larger complication of “free” college programs like Excelsior: States don’t necessarily have the funds to make college fully accessible on their own.

“States are trying to solve a really big problem by themselves and there should be more federal support,” Bombardieri said. One reason these strict rules about full-time enrollment have developed is to keep tuition-assistance programs within budget. The fastest way to open up a program like Excelsior and cover the students who need aid the most may be to build a partnership between the federal government and individual states. As Bombardieri put it, “It’s very easy for people to fight about the details when there’s a much bigger conversation the country needs to have about supporting higher education.”

Michael Waters is a freelance journalist covering the oddities of politics and economics. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, Gizmodo, BuzzFeed, and the Outline.

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