[guest post by JVW]
I apologize for the gratuitous French in the post title.
What if I told you that New York’s Excelsior Scholarship program, which Governor Andrew Cuomo promised would make in-state tuition “free” for middle-class residents, hasn’t ended up impacting all that many Empire State families? The program was first proposed in the spring of 2016 and launched amid much fanfare in January 2017, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election and the Democrat Party’s struggle to define a set of principles going forward. Senator Bernard Sanders joined the corrupt governor on stage to give his socialist blessing to the program, with the elderly Vermonter insisting that “we must make public colleges and universities tuition free for the middle-class and working families of our country.” The state’s 2018 budget was passed three months later, and the Excelsior Scholarship program was rolled out in time for the 2017-18 academic year.
So a bunch of New Yorkers from middle-class families ended up getting free tuition at the State University of New York and City University of New York campuses, right? Well, not exactly. A report by the Center for an Urban Future suggests that only about 3.2 percent of the more than 633,000 students enrolled in public colleges in the state are Excelsior Scholarship recipients. The numbers are even worse for the NYC public colleges, with CUNY university students and CUNY community college students reporting only 2.1 percent and 0.9 percent of students as scholarship recipients respectively. What’s more incredible is that better than two in three scholarship applicants were denied, a proportion way out of whack with the promises that Cuomo made to his middle class constituents.
The program’s eligibility is limited to families who make no more than $110,000 per year (bumped up to $125k next year), so there are plenty of New Yorkers who believe themselves to be middle class but are finding out that their kids don’t qualify because the family’s income is too high. In addition, students seeking an Excelsior Scholarship must first apply for all forms of federal financial aid, and many of the poorest New Yorkers are receiving full tuition aid from Uncle Sucker in Washington and thus do not need the additional help from Albany. Accepting the scholarship also obligates the student to spend one year working in New York after graduation for every scholarship year they received money, so given the difficult economic conditions in parts of New York state perhaps some potential recipients and their families have decided the scholarship isn’t such a good bet after all.
The biggest factor though that is limiting the scholarship’s reach is the requirement that recipients take at least 30 hours of course credit each year, which is pretty much a very manageable four courses per term, not even including summer sessions. Apparently New York college kids don’t care too much for being a full-time student, even when the government is picking up tuition costs. The Center for an Urban Future determined that a whopping 83 percent of the application rejections were students who were not keeping on graduation pace. With the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree now being stretched out for six years and the two-year associate’s degree taking three, the idea of matriculating your way through college before you turn 24 seems to be quaint and archaic.
And it just wouldn’t be a progressive crowning achievement were the program not confusingly administered and mostly opaque. Financial aid officers complain that the program lacks clear guidelines and buries both the student and the institution in tedious paperwork. While both SUNY and CUNY saw modest budget increases of 1.6% and 1.0% respectively in the 2018-19 state budget, the state plans to spend $1.15 billion managing student loans, a 23% increase over last year and a full tenth of what is spent on the two state college systems. And there is still no clear and definitive action plan for enforcing the post-college residency requirement, let alone defending it from the inevitable legal challenges.
It’s not too difficult to conclude that the Excelsior Scholarships were little more than progressive grandstanding, a way to pretend to make college “free” by creating jobs for bureaucrats without asking the higher education industry to undertake any meaningful reforms. Bringing along Crusty Old Bernie to provide an aura of real Marxist purity to the program is cynicism typical of Andrew Cuomo, an odious yet ambitious politician known primarily for his insincerity and nastiness. A real plan to either keep college costs low or to have them completely absorbed by the state would include genuine reforms such as requiring professors to teach more classes, closing departments and programs that don’t serve a great number of students, and paring the course catalog of esoteric courses that fit in with academia’s increasingly bizarre fetishes in order to concentrate on larger courses that have more general usefulness to the degree. With American higher education serving as the indoctrination camp for Democrat progressivism, don’t expect politicians like Andrew Cuomo to issue that sort of challenge any time soon.