What Free Tuition Really Means

by KAREN CLEMENTS
editor@thecommunitiesofcolor.com

New York State has introduced the Excelsior Scholarship, a Tuition Free Degree Program.
The program promises New York residents with family household gross incomes (as filed on your 2015 federal tax returns) of under $100K free tuition at a SUNY (State University of New York) or CUNY (City University of New York) institutions. The program is slated to begin in the 2017-18 academic year.
Recipients can receive up to $5,500 toward their tuition costs which does not include grants from TAP (Tuition Assistance Program) Pell (a US government subsidy) or other scholarships.
Eligible students must be enrolled in 30 credits over the course of the academic year which equates to enrolling in at least 12 credits per term or four classes (classes are typically 3 credits each, lab instruction would be on additional credit).
Students currently enrolled in college are eligible to receive a scholarship provided they are currently on track to complete their degree on time. Students pursing an associate degree are eligible to get an award for up to two years. Those pursing a bachelor’s degree are eligible to receive the award for five years. Recipients need to earn a passing grade to remain eligible for the award.
Those who receive an Excelsior Scholarship award must live in New York State after graduation for the years in which they received their award. For example, those who received four scholarships awards would have to live in New York four years after their graduation. Graduates who are working in those post college years, must be working in New York State. Failure to meet those post graduate requirements will result in the conversion of the scholarship award into a loan.
The Excelsior Scholarship program is not open to those seeking a Master’s Degree or second Bachelor’s Degree.
However great the program appears on paper, the concern is that those most in need will be left out, particularly students of color. The stipulations of full time attendance and the post-graduation living requirement are reasons there is concern this group will be left out.
Students of color typically do not attend college full time. Although there are several reasons why this group might not be enrolled full time, the primary reason is income. In an article in Diario De Mexico, undocumented student Elizabeth Sanchez explained it thusly “at my house, everyone works”. Sanchez’s parents have an annual household income of less than $60,000. The focus of the income is rent and bills.
For students of color, holding part time employment is the norm so that everyday expenses along with the costs incurred by higher education including commuting, books, student and lab fees and more are covered. (In many cases, part time employment is not enough to cover expenses and so many student opt to work full time.) Holding any type of employment makes it challenging to balance the demands of full time college coursework. Remember, students have to be on track to complete their degrees in order to be eligible for the award. It typically takes a reported six years for African American students to finish their bachelor’s degree, a time frame which would be outside the boundaries of the program.
The other concern with the plan is the in-state living and working after graduation stipulation. New York State is one of the most expensive states to live in the nation. Affordable housing remains a major concern for individuals across most income levels. Having out-of-state opportunities post-graduation might help individuals gain closer access to a career path and the middle class.
Out of state options are also important as the competition for jobs in New York has always been challenging for people of color. A degree doesn’t guarantee employment. When graduates enter the job market in New York they compete against individuals from around the country with degrees from State Universities, private institutions, HBCU and Ivy Leagues. Along with candidates from top level schools, these graduates also face nepotism, racism and stereotypes when striving for quality employment. As such, having a wider pool of options for this group would make success more accessible.
Despite the concerns, individuals are viewing the program with optimism and hoping for a chance to make their college dreams a reality.
The Application process for the program is due to begin in late May.
To sign up for an alert which will advise on when you may apply for the Excelsior Scholarship visit: www.hesc.ny.go§

As published May 2017 issue of Communities of Color News.