Foss: Residency requirement for free tuition not big deal

Like any program that sounds too good to be true, this one comes with a few strings
Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a bill-signing event for the Excelsior Scholarship program on April 12, 2017.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a bill-signing event for the Excelsior Scholarship program on April 12, 2017.

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

The other day I asked a friend what his son was planning on doing now that his National Guard basic training was complete and he was returning to New York.

Would he get a job? Go to college? Work and go to school?

My friend’s son has plenty of options.

One option that didn’t exist when he graduated from high school last spring is the Excelsior Scholarship, which will provide free tuition for students at New York’s public colleges and universities.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that.

Like any program that sounds too good to be true, this one comes with a few strings.

Students must be enrolled in college full-time and average 30 credits a year. They must maintain a certain grade point average. Their family income cannot exceed $100,000 a year, although that figure will eventually rise to $125,000. And they must live and work in New York for as many years as they received the scholarship. If students break this commitment, the grant converts to a loan.

It’s this last requirement that has inspired the most consternation, with some suggesting that it will hold the bright young minds of New York state hostage, denying them the opportunity to maximize their potential in greener pastures such as, I don’t know, Austin, Texas, or San Francisco.

These concerns are overstated.

The residency requirement isn’t especially onerous or limiting. It’s not necessary — most SUNY students do stay in New York after graduation — but it’s certainly not a ruinous trap that some are making it out to be.

It’s not unusual for scholarships to come with expectations — a friend of mine attended college on an Army ROTC scholarship, and repaid it by serving in the military. Students who find the Excelsior Scholarship’s requirements too burdensome can finance their tuition through some other means.

Excelsior Scholarships aren’t mandatory.

Nobody is obligated to avail themselves of this new program.

The scholarship provides students with an option, and for some families the benefits of free tuition might outweigh the benefits of being able to strike out for parts unknown upon graduation. For other families, it might not.

Students who are concerned that they won’t be able to maximize their potential if they accept an Excelsior Scholarship needn’t worry: With the exception of athletes, pretty much nobody maximizes their potential in their mid-20s. Those great out-of-state jobs and grad school opportunities will be there after graduates have fulfilled their Excelsior Scholarship residency requirement and are ready for a change.

Of course, there’s nothing in the Excelsior Scholarship that prohibits upstate graduates from moving downstate for better and higher-paying job opportunities, much as they do now. Which means those hoping the residency requirement will curtail upstate’s brain drain are likely to be disappointed.

The Excelsior Scholarship is easy to criticize.

It does too little to help the neediest students, and does absolutely nothing for part-time students, who are often juggling family responsibilities, work and school. It promises more than it will deliver, as students will soon discover that free tuition is not the same thing as free college, or even debt-free college. It doesn’t address the ever-rising cost of college, which will keep going up.

These flaws and failures irritate me.

The residency requirement?

Not so much.

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog can be found here.

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