ALBANY -- Financial aid officers who called on state officials to provide formal guidance on the Excelsior Scholarship program were quickly rebuked, as officials tried to quash the appearance of uncertainty around the state’s free-tuition program.
During a meeting last week of the Higher Education Services Corporation board, a pair of financial aid directors, each speaking on behalf of organizations that represent officials who administer financial aid at colleges and universities across the state, asked state officials to publish “formal, written, comprehensive guidance” on the free-tuition scholarship.
The financial aid officials said staff with HESC have been responsive to questions about the scholarship program – now entering its second year with a family income threshold of $110,000 – but that the lack of guidance made it harder for financial aid offices to help students apply.
“Critical student eligibility decisions are now being made by financial aid administrators across the state with very little written policy guidance,” said Darrin Rooker, a financial aid director at New York Chiropractic College and president of a statewide association of financial aid officers. “These eligibility decisions have significant impact on whether many students will be financially able to begin or continue their academic course of study.”
Rooker said financial aid officers feel “vulnerable,” as they answer students' questions, and they worry decisions they make now will be called into question in the future.
Sarah Buell, a financial aid administrator in western New York, pointed out that SUNY’s financial aid professionals have been asking for the formal guidance for nearly a year, including in a November written request and during testimony to state lawmakers. Without a formal document to point to when answering questions, Buell said, aid officers have been left piecing together answers based on information from myriad webinars, email responses and panel discussions.
“The lack of written guidance that we can show families does strain the trust and relationship that we work on with our students and families,” Buell said at the Aug. 1 board meeting.
The criticism was enough to draw a rebuke from SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson, who suggested the comments were sowing unnecessary confusion.
“Yesterday, misstatements were aired by a handful of financial aid administrators about the process in implementing the program,” Johnson said in a prepared statement the day after the HESC meeting. “Unofficial statements such as these create unnecessary confusion and are not productive in ensuring that this scholarship benefits as many students as possible.”
The comments from the financial aid officers were first reported by the Albany Times Union after the HESC meeting last week. The Times-Union also reported that, following the meeting, financial aid officers at all of the state’s SUNY campuses were told to not answer media questions about the Excelsior program.
Holly Liapis, a SUNY spokeswoman, said Johnson -- in her prepared statement -- was referring to comments that suggested every SUNY campus employed a different process for implementing the scholarship program or that there was poor communication between local financial aid offices and SUNY central and the Higher Education Services Corp.
“Leaving the impression of a lack of (information) resources or a lack of partnership, that’s not the case,” Liapis said, when asked what had been misstated at the meeting.
The Daily Gazette reached out to four regional SUNY schools – Schenectady County Community College, SUNY Cobleksill, UAlbany and Fulton-Montgomery Community College – for this story. Only at FMCC did a financial aid officer answer questions about the scholarship program this week.
The other three colleges provided statements from spokespeople but did not allow an interview with a financial aid official.
“We knew there would be a learning curve, and we are learning; that’s what we are doing,” said Rebecca Cozzocrea, coordinator of financial aid at FMCC.
Cozzocrea said HESC staff has been responsive to all of her questions about student eligibility. She said the school’s financial aid officers work with students to fill out and submit the scholarship application to HESC staff, who determine whether a student qualifies for the scholarship.
“For every student that I had that applied, we got an answer on whether they were or were not (eligible),” she said. “I did not have any problems on mine.”
SUNY Cobleskill Financial Aid Director Brian Smith did not answer questions about whether the state should offer more guidance on the program.
“At this point in time, we are not responding to any request like that," he said.
The statements from the other three local colleges were basically laudatory of the application process. Mike Nolan, a spokesman at UAlbany, said the school had nearly 1,000 students benefit from the scholarship last year, and said the college “will continue to work closely with SUNY Administration … to ensure our information is accurate” about the scholarship.
David White, a spokesman for SCCC, said the college provides information about the program on its financial aid website as well as in person.
“Recognizing the importance of this aid program, our staff works closely with SUNY administration in making sure that all of the information we are conveying is accurate and up to date,” White said in a prepared statement.
The Excelsior Scholarship covers the cost of tuition for students from families with income of up to $110,000 at SUNY and CUNY colleges and universities. To qualify, students must be enrolled in a full-time course load and must earn enough credits each year to stay on track to graduation.