When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in January that he would push for the Excelsior Scholarship, legislation to cover the full cost of tuition for in-state students from families making $125,000 or less per year, his plan drew opposite reactions from presidents of public and private colleges in the state.
The Excelsior Scholarship bill, passed by the state Legislature in April, was praised by SUNY and CUNY schools as a way to increase affordability and allow more students to receive degrees. Private college presidents warned, however, that the plan would upend the state’s student marketplace and hurt small private schools that can offer a wider range of options.
In Westchester, college officials were cautious when asked by the Business Journal to grade the program near the end of its first semester. The application process for the scholarship started in late spring and only students from families making under $100,000 qualify for the first round of the program, so the full effect may not be clear.
The Excelsior Scholarship
- Budgeted for $87 million in 2017 fiscal year.
- State covers remaining cost of tuition only after federal and state aid for students from families making under $100,000. The maximum income goes up to $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 in 2019.
- Students must be New York residents, enrolled full time and maintain a passing grade point average.
- After graduation, students have to live full time in New York for a time equal to the length of the scholarship, or it converts into a loan.
SUNY officials in October said about 45,000 SUNY and CUNY students were deemed eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship this fall. About 22,000 of those students had the remaining costs of their tuition covered by the scholarship. The Excelsior is a “last dollar” scholarship, meaning it covers the remaining cost of tuition after all other grants and financial aid have been awarded.
In total, about 53 percent of the approximately 400,000 full-time students attending SUNY and CUNY schools this fall are there tuition-free, up 5 percent from last year.
At SUNY Purchase College, 294 students qualified for the Excelsior Scholarship this year. The school enrolls about 4,000 students in its undergraduate programs.
Caitlin Read, dean of enrollment management at Purchase, said the school has seen an increase in interest. She said the exact effect of the new scholarship offering is hard to gauge at this stage, however, since students had likely already narrowed down their college choices by the time Excelsior applications opened.
“But we are hearing positive buzz from students during the recruitment cycle,” Read said. “It’s creating an enthusiasm, and rightfully so, for a SUNY education, so we feel we’ve been the beneficiary of that.”
Admission applications for the fall 2018 semester will be a better gauge of the program’s impact, Read said, as it’s the first academic year where potential students knew of the scholarship during the entire recruitment period.
A spokesperson for Westchester Community College said that the school is seeing an increased number of applications. “We believe the availability of the Excelsior Scholarship was a key factor,” said Patrick Hennessey in an email message. “Excelsior is a game-changer for college students in New York state. Students who have not previously considered college are now doing so,” including students seeking technical programs for middle-skills careers.
Hennessey also cautioned that “with enrollments ongoing and Excelsior Scholarship limits increasing next year, it is too soon to know the full impact of the program.”
Meanwhile, a recent report from The Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities (CICU) in New York found that 30 of the 48 private colleges in the state at which New Yorkers make up 65 percent or more of the student body saw enrollment declines this fall.
Mary Beth Labate, president of CICU, said the data “foreshadow risk for the entire higher education ecosystem in New York.”
The state Legislature did fund a new Enhanced Tuition Award for 2017 that provides up to $6,000 to students toward private school tuition at participating colleges and universities. But only about a third of the state’s private institutions opted to join the program, and students from those schools are still waiting to find out if they will receive the award, according to a report from Politico New York.
Both Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry and Manhattanville College in Purchase qualify as majority New York schools by the CICU criteria. Officials at both colleges said the Excelsior program likely contributed to decreased enrollment.
Mercy College President Timothy L. Hall said much of the college’s ability to weigh the impact of the Excelsior scholarship so far is anecdotal. The college did have a decline in enrollment this fall compared to last, but that also coincides with the school’s decision to raise its admission standards for the last admission period.
Hall noted that a number of freshman students at the school registered for classes and housing later than usual for the fall semester.
“The shift this year was a lot more people registering at the last second,” he said. “To me, these are very likely people who held out hope of getting the Excelsior Scholarship and then came to us when they didn’t. So I’m almost certain there are students who did get Excelsior and didn’t come to us.”
Hall cited a 2016 Georgetown University review of a plan for national free public school tuition that estimated such a program would decrease enrollment at private colleges between 7 and 15 percent. While the school is working to combat that possibility through increased outreach and scholarship money, he said a reduction in admitted students likely means cutbacks for filling faculty positions and other college expenditures.
Manhattanville College, meanwhile, estimated it lost about 35 students to the Excelsior program out of its fall freshman class of about 480 students. It made that estimate by comparing this fall’s enrollment to historical data in areas of the state where SUNY schools are most competitive, such as near Albany, Binghamton and Stony Brook.
Michael E. Geisler, president of Manhattanville College, said the school anticipated the decrease and prepared for it in its annual budget. The college is also expanding its presence in other areas of the country to reach more out-of-state students, though he said Manhattanville had started that initiative before Excelsior.
“While for the moment we are managing pretty well at Manhattanville College, not all the schools in the area are in the same position,” Geisler said.
Referring to the overall employment at private colleges and universities in the state, Geisler added, “We’ll have to see what the long-term impact of Excelsior is. There are 485,000 jobs depending on it and that’s a very significant part of the infrastructure of New York state.”