The Excelsior Scholarship Program

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New York’s New Initiative to Provide Tuition-Free College Education

On April 11th, 2017, New York State became the first U.S. State to offer four-year college education tuition-free with the Excelsior Scholarship Program. Geared towards middle-class residents of New York State, the program provides free tuition for students from families with an income of $100,000 or below at any State University (SUNY) or City University (CUNY) in New York.


According to the website of the Excelsior Scholarship, “today, college is what high school was – it should always be an option even if you can’t afford it.”


Certainly this is true in many ways. A high school degree is not what it used to be, and research shows that a college degree is increasingly standard for any level of professional success.


The so-called “degree premium” is the gap between average earnings of those with just a high school degree versus those with a college or university degree. This gap has widened in past decades as the needs of the U.S. job market have evolved, but the nature of this gap has also changed.


Jeffrey J. Selingo says in an opinion piece for the Washington Post: “the bachelor’s degree is becoming the new high school diploma… the four-year degree is now the minimum ticket to get in the door to any job.”


It may be just this shift in the relative value of high school and college degrees that has spurred the development of programs like the Excelsior Scholarship Program.


From this perspective, the Excelsior Scholarship Program is certainly a step in the right direction. In coming years, the income ceiling for eligible students will slowly be expanded to $200,000, further democratizing higher education in New York.


But while there has been considerable praise for this program, there has also been critique and doubt. Part of this stems from the fact that while the scholarship covers tuition, many students will still face barriers when it comes to paying for room and board and other associated costs. But the larger concern for many has been that the program comes with certain “strings attached.”


For one, the Excelsior Scholarship Program requires graduates to live and work in New York state after graduation for as many years as they received the scholarship. If they do leave New York state in that window of time, perhaps for graduate school, a job opportunity, military service, or to be with their family, the scholarship will turn into a loan.


The Excelsior Scholarship Program also requires that participants in the program study full-time, taking at least 30 credits per year and graduate within two to four years. This seems like an unrealistic expectation when we look at the current graduation statistics from CUNY and SUNY schools. Only 2% of CUNY students, for example, are full-time students finishing their degree within four years. Less than half of all SUNY students finish in four years.


These requirements could end up punishing the very individuals for whom the program is geared to help – individuals who, for whatever reason, find it financially necessary to be employed while studying  toward their degree (working parents who need to provide for their children, particularly single parents; etc.)


Students interested in the Excelsior Scholarship Program should thus think long and hard about these requirements before enrolling in the program, asking themselves – “Can I be sure that I’ll stay in New York after graduating? If I don’t stay, will I be able to afford paying back the scholarship? Is it realistic for me to finish my degree in the required timeframe?”


For students who feel confident that they will be able to finish on time and will stay in NY after graduating, applying to this program might be a good fit. But for students who don’t want to take the risk, exploring other options may be wisest.


Also, undocumented students are not eligible since students must be a citizen, permanent resident or refugee to qualify for the scholarship.


Another important thing to understand is that The Excelsior Scholarship is a “last dollar” scholarship, meaning that Federal aid and grants will be applied first, with the Excelsior Scholarship being applied to the remaining balance, so you first need to check if you are eligible for federal aids and grants before considering applying for the Excelsior scholarship.


University of the People, the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, accredited online university, exists to address the financial barriers that the Excelsior Scholarship Program was designed to address. Unlike Excelsior, though, it is an ideal program for students who also need to work, and to take responsibility for family members. Being an online university means that students can live wherever they want and continue to study, as well as move wherever they need to without disrupting their studies.


But it’s important to remember that while the Excelsior Scholarship Program may not be ideal for everyone – it is at least a step in the right direction. Hopefully, other states will take notice – not just of the praise but also of the concerns raised by the Excelsior program – and follow suit with their own scholarship programs to continue this development towards accessible, affordable, universal higher education.