What Does Free College Really Mean?

Edited and packaged by Aiyana Edmund, Rob Piersall, Otto Kratky and John Camera

 

The Excelsior Scholarship, the only free-college plan in the country, was signed by Gov. Cuomo on April 12. However, New York’s tuition-free college plan will do little to improve the lives of students at SUNY New Paltz.

Excelsior will serve as an alternative to private loans, enabling students to complete their degrees without being saddled with debt. Of course, unless you fail to meet the scholarship’s requirements.

To receive the scholarship, students must maintain a 3.0 GPA in a total of 30 credits per year. A full-time student is typically 24 credits a year, making the bare minimum a higher workload than many students are currently handling. Students who work full-time off campus are faced with another strain. They are unable to cut back on their hours because the scholarship doesn’t cover room and board or food costs; only tuition.

“The Excelsior Scholarship is a first-of-its-kind in the nation program providing tuition-free college at New York’s public colleges and universities to families making up to $125,000 a year,” Cuomo said.

The scholarship will cover any gap in tuition expenses that are not covered by other means, such as Pell grants, state tuition assistance or federal financial aid.

“I currently work 40 hours a week,” said Austin Ferris, a second-year student at SUNY New Paltz. “There’s no way I’d be able to take more than 12 credits a semester while working enough to eat and pay rent.”

The state is also requiring students who benefit from the scholarship to live and work in-state for however many years they utilized the program. Cuomo said that since the state is investing in its young people, they need to invest back into the state as well. Failure to adhere to this policy causes the scholarship to become a loan.

“I don’t know of many 23-year-old’s owning a home in New York,” said Dan Dwyer, a graduate of SUNY Buffalo.  “I moved to Colorado in 2012 after graduating. Now I own a home, four acres, and have an amazing job.  I’d have missed this opportunity with Excelsior.”

SUNY estimates that 80,000 of its current students would quality for the program, with another 3,000-5,000 eligible from CUNY. SUNY New Paltz administration is still working out how many students are potentially eligible, and how many new admissions they expect to see because of the program.

Information courtesy of New York Higher Education.

“It’s really difficult to predict how many students might qualify for the Excelsior Scholarship at this time,” said Maureen Lohan-Bremer, Director of Financial Aid at New Paltz. “There are too many moving parts that need to be nailed down before we get a handle on the number of potential recipients.”

Cuomo has estimated that 940,000 families with college-aged children would qualify for the program. If the SUNY and CUNY estimates are correct, there could be up to 850,000 eligible new applicants for the coming school year.  Some current students are concerned with what the potential influx of new students means for New Paltz. One of the most crowded schools in the SUNY system, there is less than 1 percent physical capacity for growth on campus.

“Some classes are already crazy packed, my freshman math class for instance,” said Jessica Curcio, a SUNY New Paltz art major.  “I think it’s a great idea, I’m going to see if I’m eligible myself.  But I’m also concerned that it means this campus is going to continue to expand, losing that intimate feel I love.”

 

The program’s design as a gap-closing measure for tuition is another one of these flaws.  The poorest college students, who this program should target, receive no assistance from it, as they receive Pell grants and NYS Tuition assistance to cover tuition.  Those who benefit are a thin section of middle class: the closer your yearly earning comes to the $100,000 cap without going over, just like Price is Right, the better.   

The Excelsior Scholarship has potential to help SUNY New Paltz, but right now few seem sure of anything.  Some students are excited, some are skeptical, but everyone is talking about it.  And let’s face it, even if you had to jump through flaming hoops, SUNY students would still pursue the program, because “free college” is unlike anything we’ve heard before.

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