Top state and SUNY officials said during college visits this week they are confident the state allocated enough funds to cover the free tuition Excelsior Scholarship for all eligible students next fall.
When they established the scholarship – which starts out for students from families earning up to $100,000 next school year – lawmakers appropriated $163 million for 2017-18. The law also creates a lottery if there are more eligible students than funds to support them.
“We feel very confident there will be sufficient funds this year,” Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said during a visit to the University at Albany on Tuesday.“It won’t be necessary this year at all,” Hochul said of a lottery.
Around 5 percent of current SUNY students – about 20,000 students – will be eligible for the scholarship after excluding students covered under other programs or who don’t meet a 30-credit-hour requirement, according to an analysis presented to the SUNY Trustees last week.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state officials have said they estimate as many as 900,000 families meet the income requirements under the scholarship program and may ultimately qualify. The program is designed to fund the “last dollar” of tuition – after other federal and state grants – for students from families earning up to $125,000.
With final rules and regulations expected next month, students and school officials still have a litany of unanswered questions about the logistical ins and outs of the program. If a student has to put school on hold to deal with an emergency, can they return to the scholarship program? Yes. If a student takes 28 credits one year but 60 credits over two years, does that meet the 30-credit requirement? No.
Even vice presidents of financial aid and enrollment have questions about how it will work.
“Without the regulations out, it’s hard to look at each individual student and say you are elgible and you aren’t,” said Mark Bessette, financial aid director at Schenectady County Community College. “The one guarantee we can make is if you don’t apply you won’t be eligible.”
SCCC has held a half dozen information sessions for students and the community about the scholarship and have discussed the program with high school counselors, Bessette said. The college estimates about 250 current students would be eligible for the scholarship in the fall.
Local schools are still sorting through how the program will work for their students, but college presidents are optimistic it will improve access and help bolster enrollment.
At UAlbany, officials estimate around 2,000 current students “potentially qualify” for the scholarship and another 1,000 students would likely join the school’s ranks once the scholarship program is phased-in over the coming years. That’s on top of the roughly 4,000 students who are already attending UAlbany tuition-free thanks to federal Pell grants and the state’s tuition assistance program.
Since the lowest income students already attend tuition-free for the most part, the scholarship’s benefits will largely land with middle-income families.
While critiques of the free-tuition program argue SUNY schools won’t be able to absorb a flood of new students – especially the lobbying organization that represents private colleges in the state – UAlbany’s interim president said the school is well-positioned and eager to up its student population. The school is looking to increase its enrollment by 2,500 students in the coming years.
“We are prepared for this expansion; it’s what we wanted to do anyway,” said James Stellar, UAlbany interim president. “We are ready to go.”
Stellar said the school is also looking to shift the focus of donors from supporting tuition scholarships to instead support living and other costs to students – the free-tuition scholarship doesn’t help with room and board, the lion’s share of the cost to attend the university.
The college and state leaders have also rebuffed complaints from private colleges who argue the program unfairly excludes private colleges – although some students attending private schools will be able to access expanded support – and could threaten enrollment-reliant budgets at private colleges.
SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher – who was also optimistic a lottery would not be necessary this year – said it’s important to collect and analyze data as the program matures.
“You know what, we are going to have data, we are going to find out where these students come from,” Zimpher said. “I don’t see any reason why all boats can’t rise but instead of just speculating we are gong to have data, so hold tight.”