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Foss: State must do more to make college affordable

Foss: State must do more to make college affordable

At SUNY Schenectady, just 1 percent of the school's 6,588 students received a state Excelsior Scholarship
Foss: State must do more to make college affordable
At SUNY Schenectady, just 68 of the school's 6,588 students received an Excelsior Scholarship.
Photographer: GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

I had a small amount of student loan debt when I graduated from college in 1998 -- roughly $10,000. 

Of course, it didn't seem like a small amount at the time, but I found it fairly manageable, even on my paltry young reporter's salary. I didn't feel overly burdened by it, and I paid it off years ago, long before I ever considered buying a house. 

It's a much different story today. 

I talk to young adults all the time whose student loan debt is at least three times as much as mine was, if not more. And they're not making three times as much money as I did, either. 

Saddling young adults with a huge amount of debt right as they enter the work force has consequences. 

According to a Federal Reserve report released last week, skyrocketing student loan debt put homeownership out of reach for 400,000 Americans in their 20's and 30's between 2005 and 2014. 

During that time, homeownership among that age cohort dropped 8.8 percentage points, and the Federal Reserve estimates that soaring student loan balances account for at least a quarter of the drop. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo likes to tout the free college tuition available to low and middle income SUNY and CUNY students through his Excelsior Scholarship program. But the numbers suggest that far too many students and graduates are still bogged down by crippling debt, with no relief in sight. 

Now in its second year, the Excelsior Scholarship is available to students whose families earn up to $110,000. 

According to the Rockefeller Institute of Government, students who graduate from New York's private and public colleges and universities with debt carry an average debt load of $30,346. For SUNY graduates who earned a bachelor's degree, the average is a bit lower: $26,600. 

If we want college graduates to be able to own homes, buy cars and have children, we need to figure out how to make a college education affordable again. 

Right now, 42 percent of students at New York's private and public colleges graduate with no debt at all. 

And that's great. 

But the goal should be a debt-free education for everyone and, barring that, lowering the state's average student debt load so that it's much more modest and manageable. 

Cuomo has depicted the Excelsior Scholarship as a way to make the college dream a reality for people who once felt it was out of reach, and it's hard to dispute that free tuition is a huge help to those who receive it. 

But the research suggests that the program's impact has been minimal, at best.  

Last year the Center for an Urban Future in New York City released a report showing that very few of the state's SUNY and CUNY students received an Excelsior Scholarship in 2017-2018, the program's inaugural year.

"Only 20,086 students statewide received an award from the Excelsior program -- or just 3.2 percent of the 633,543 undergraduates statewide," the report observed. 

The main reason for being rejected from the program: insufficient credits. In order to receive an Excelsior Scholarship, a student must earn at least 30 credits in every year of enrollment. 

This requirement is overly strict -- a whopping 83 percent of applicants were rejected for an Excelsior Scholarship for failing to meet it -- and it's time for the state to get rid of it.

The demographic most likely to be hurt by it is lower-income and non-traditional students who, due to work and/or family obligations, find it hard to take a full 30-hour course-load every semester. 

At SUNY Schenectady County Community College, 68 of the school's 6,588 students received an Excelsior Scholarship. That's just one percent of SCCC's student body -- a shockingly low percentage. The University at Albany and SUNY Cobleskill fared better, with 7.4 percent and 9.2 percent of the school's student bodies, respectively, receiving an Excelsior Scholarship.

The Excelsior Scholarship is a well-intentioned program. But it would be far more effective if it had a broader reach.

The state needs to revisit it and see what can be done to make it better. 

Cuomo isn't wrong to say that the state provides free tuition to lower- and middle-income students. 

But the truth is far more complex, and disappointing. 

Too many graduates are still struggling with debt loads that are too high and will haunt them for years to come. And there's little hope of that changing any time soon. 

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

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