Home > Uncategorized > Neither Cuomo’s “Free Tuition” Excelsior Program Nor “Choice” Address Inequity… and Both Reinforce the Status Quo

Neither Cuomo’s “Free Tuition” Excelsior Program Nor “Choice” Address Inequity… and Both Reinforce the Status Quo

I read two different articles this morning on NYS Governor Cuomo’s vaunted Excelsior program which offers “Free Tuition” to State colleges. Both articles acknowledged one flaw in the program: it does nothing to help children raised in poverty.

Lisa Foderaro’s NYTimes article focuses on the impact of the recently passed legislation on students who are weighing their decision on which college to attend in the coming year and the impact on public college admissions administrators who are waiting to see if their 2017 Freshman classes are larger. In the body of the article, Ms. Foderaro offers this synopsis of the Excelsior program with my emphasis added:

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has made Excelsior the centerpiece of his middle-class agenda, saying it will “make college accessible to thousands of working and middle class students” who might otherwise not be able to afford to attend. The program’s passage was hailed by Hillary Clinton, among others, for opening up college opportunities, but critics have complained that it does little to ease the college burden for the state’s poorest students. (By 2019, the income cap for the scholarship will rise to $125,000.)

Some have argued that the tens of millions of dollars allotted for the program this year should be used instead to help low-income students pay for room and board, which is generally not covered by existing state and federal financial-aid programs. Others faulted the scholarship’s stringent eligibility requirements, including full-time enrollment and the need to stay in the state after graduation. Still others worried that the program would siphon students from New York’s private colleges, putting their financial viability in jeopardy.

The Christiansen Institute’s Newsletter article featured an by Alana Dunagan critiquing the Excelsior program, which focussed on the impediment the program imposes on those, like the Christiansen Institute, who seek to change the current paradigm for college. In the body of her essay, Ms. Dunagan offers this scathing analysis of the impact of Excelsior on students raised in poverty:

The Excelsior Scholarship has been criticized for not doing enough to help students. It only covers tuition—not fees or living expenses, which together are estimated at $15,180 at SUNY and $14,135 at CUNY. It only covers full-time enrollment—not part-time enrollment, which excludes over a third of current CUNY students. Taken together, these two factors mean that most working adults will likely be shut out of the program, even though the Excelsior Scholarship has no official age requirements. The policy is also regressive: it is a last-dollar program which will direct funds to middle- and upper-middle-class families, rather than helping poor and working-class students defray more of the full cost of attendance. As free college advocate Sara Goldrick-Rab said, regarding Cuomo’s new initiative, “No other free college program is less about making college affordable.”

As one who sees the need to provide access to post-secondary education those who need it most, it is evident that the Excelsior program is NOT the way forward. Like the “choice” plans offered by reformers and especially the reform plan offered by Betsy DeVos, Excelsior directs relatively scarce public funds to institutions that middle class parents are already voluntarily funding out of their pockets instead of directing those funds to children who’s parents do not have the wherewithal to fund the first dollar for post-secondary schools or “schools of choice”.

And as Ms. Dunagan emphasizes in her essay, the Excelsior program keeps a failing model for college on life-support, thereby crowding out opportunities for innovative approaches to schooling to emerge.

But what the Excelsior Scholarship program does do, and does well, is distract students, parents, and taxpayers from the broken business model of the state’s higher education system. “Free college” is in this case a shell game. Although it may reduce the cost of college for middle-class families, it by no means makes it free—and the costs of the program are likely to be shouldered by the same middle-class taxpayers who it benefits. But the underlying issue still remains: it’s not just tuition that is unaffordable, it is the cost—ever rising—of college itself. As we’ve written before, “free college” may score votes, but it doesn’t solve problems

Cuomo may have papered over the state’s higher education problems for the moment, but in doing so, he is likely to make them worse in the long run. The program will undoubtedly force some of the state’s private schools to close, but it is no boon for public schools either. Subsidizing more students attending a system that is bleeding money will have costs far higher than the Excelsior Scholarship’s $163 million price tag. Over the long term, higher education policy needs to move away from subsidy programs that let more students afford college. The key is redesigning college to be affordable.

I do not agree with all of the approaches the Christiansen Institution advocates (i.e. their overselling of on-line learning), but I do agree that we are wasting millions on post-secondary education that could be better spent on funding community service “gap years” and/or job training programs for careers that are vital but do not require a formal degree. Excelsior reinforces a bad model of post-secondary education in the same way that standardized testing reinforces the factory model of schooling that is imprinted in our minds…. and like the “choice” model it subverts the need for change.  

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