Excelsior Scholarship Only Benefits 2% of BC Students

Gov. Cuomo and Sen. Bernie Sanders announced the Excelsior Scholarship on Jan. 3, 2017 as “Tuituion-Free College for New York’s Middle Class,” but the reality doesn’t live up to his claims. / Local 372

According to statistics from the office of Andrew Cuomo and provided to Brooklyn College, only two percent of Brooklyn College students can expect tuition assistance from the Excelsior Scholarship, disappointing students and leaving many feelingcheated.”

The governor’s office released documents in early October that said nearly 210,000, or 53 percent of all eligible students, are attending SUNY/CUNY schools tuition-free through financial assistance from the Excelsior Scholarship and other federal and state aid.

But at Brooklyn College, out of more than 17,000 students, only 773 students are eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship because of strict qualifications. Out of the students who meet the guidelines only 375 Brooklyn College students should expect to get an Excelsior scholarship because of the “last dollar” structure of the program that only covers funding to those who don’t receive financial aid.

Students are feeling cheated by a “free tuition” narrative and limited by the scholarship qualifications.

The Excelsior Scholarship covers tuition for full-time students who live in New York, complete 30 credit hours a year, maintain a passing GPA of 2.0, and come from households making less than the income cap of $100,000. That income cap will rise to $110,000 in 2018, and $125,000 in 2019. Recipients are also required to live in New York State for the number of years they received the scholarship. Approximately $163 million was appropriated for the program in this year’s budget.

But the Excelsior Scholarship only pays tuition. The scholarship is “last dollar” meaning that the scholarship only provides funds for what is not covered by TAP or Pell grants.  Of the 773 eligible students at Brooklyn College, 398 students will not get an award because of this provision — a little over half of those eligible at the college.

Aida Nesimi, a sophomore, said she was frustrated when she found out she wasn’t eligible.

“Despite the fact that my parents seemingly are financially sound, we have a lot of expenses on our plate,” said Nesimi whose father pays for her and her sister’s tuition on top of the family’s home in Albania. “So after everything, we’re barely making ends meet […] I’m lucky my dad is good at managing his finances or else I don’t know how we’d be afloat after all that we have to take care of.”

“I started working more to ease the financial strain on my dad because it is not easy,” she said.

Other students felt that the program was falsely marketed.

“I felt cheated. Not cheated by whoever offers the scholarship, but by the media who lauded it as ‘free tuition for everyone,” said Krista Cohen, senior. “It’s a regular scholarship like any other, only offered to people who really truly wouldn’t be able to go to college otherwise. I don’t fault them at all, it’s very important for education to be available to everyone, and scholarships like this definitely help, I just wish the requirements for succeeding as a scholarship student weren’t so narrow.”

Free tuition advocate groups such as CUNY Struggle and Free CUNY have criticized the program. CUNY Struggle said the eligibility requirements are too stringent, closing the door to free tuition on many students.

“CUNY students, who are overwhelmingly low-income, but must somehow survive in the most expensive city in North America, need a lot more than this half-measure to ensure that they have the resources they need to pursue their college education with the dedication that so many of them show even under extraordinarily difficult circumstances,” said a spokesperson for CUNY Struggle. “The fact that CUNY tuition is already lower than most state schools, and still students have a very tough time finding the resources to sustain themselves to graduation, is an indicator of the obstacles that this plan doesn’t begin to address.”

Free CUNY, a group that received more than 4,000 signatures on a petition for fully free tuition, agreed the program was failing students.

“Cuomo’s program is a total sham with tall promises that in reality amount to very little improvements for CUNY students,” said Conor Tomas Reed, an activist at Free CUNY. “We believe that CUNY should become completely tuition-free again, and that enough annual city and state budget surpluses exist to make this happen.”

For the few students who received the scholarship, the program delivered the benefits of free tuition, but at a different price.

Ghennah Forde, a sophomore, was relieved when she received the scholarship. But from the application to disbursement, getting the scholarship came with obstacles. After appealing the claims of ineligibility because of an error with her transfer credits, she was awarded the tuition coverage. But the assistance didn’t come in time.

“It somewhat helped me out,  but in a sense, not really, since I was accepted and expected immediate financial aid, it remained pending right near the tuition deadline forcing me to pay out of fear,” Forde said.

Though she laid the money out, she was reimbursed for these expenses. She said the financial assistance with tuition is valuable to her, but she wishes the program were different.

“It somewhat takes off the burden but now I have to work even harder in classes,” she said. Forde also wishes she were able to keep her aid. Though covering the remains of her tuition is helpful, she said she expected and needed more.

“I thought it’d cover tuition and I’d keep my TAP but it deducts any other financial aid,” she said. “It’s like they’re making sure to pay the bare minimum or pick up their crumbs.”

Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship will cover households making up to $100,000 a year, and will steadily raise the tuition cap into 2019, but it might not be enough for would-be CUNY applicants. / SUNY.edu

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