The Fall 2017 semester is the first to see Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship program implemented statewide at SUNY and CUNY schools, including New Paltz. The program acts as an investment for the State, paying the tuition of college students in exchange for time spent working in New York equal to the amount of time the student benefits from the scholarship.
Under the guise of tuition being paid in full, the program was meant to make higher education more accessible for NY residents. However, with the semester now in full swing, many recipients feel that the state has over-promised and under-delivered.
“They’re making it out to be grander than it is,” said Julia Oppedisano, a third-year art education major and recipient of the scholarship. “It’s only $5,500 but they say it’s full tuition. It could be short changing people, even in terms of their hopes.”
While the program offers up to $5,500, with a tuition credit covering the difference in the cost of tuition, it acts as a last-dollar program. Students are not realizing that the program is taking into account any financial aid they received prior to applying, including loans. The result is students flocking to have their tuition covered in full, but coming up short, having to take out loans and accruing debt.
From its inception to its implementation, the Excelsior program has lacked transparency. Students who applied for the scholarship, including Oppedisano, commented on a lack of communication. Late notice of scholarship awards led some students to be late on tuition scholarships or unsure of what their finances would be going into the semester.
“It was all very abrupt,” said Patrick Derilus, a fourth-year English major. “There wasn’t much specificity about the criteria or the scholarship itself.”
Derilus had been notified of his award, but had it taken away when he did not meet the scholarship’s requirement of on-time graduation, measured by a student’s transcript of 30 credits per year.
“That scholarship would’ve been what helped me through my last year,” Derilus said. “It’s almost burdensome for me to ask my parents to help.”
The parameters of qualifying for the scholarship have affected multiple students. In the case of Baylee Spackman, a second-year English major, credits obtained in high school have created additional hurdles. An accredited junior, Spackman’s transcripts technically make her a college student, but kept her from meeting the 30-credit-per-year requirement of the scholarship. Spackman fears that the scholarship will be taken away when she reaches 125 credits and is upset that the scholarship’s strict guidelines only allowing her to take classes in her major will limit her options for courses.
“I’m frustrated with this because the SUNY system supposedly values ‘liberal arts educations,’ but blocks students from pursuing academic interests outside of their major programs and pushes students to graduate sooner than they want to,” Spackman said. “I think that the Excelsior scholarship can be a great program for some students, but for me it’s turning out to be more of a hassle than it’s really worth, and is far away from being ‘free college,’ as the state advertised.”
A disorganized rollout and spotty communication from the College’s Office of Financial Aid has left students confused and outraged.
“A lot of students were able to get money for the fall but had to deal with the frustration of the program being implemented,” said Director of the Office Financial Aid Maureen Lohan-Bremer. “If they delayed it a year it would have been smoother. The process wasn’t quite perfect the first time out.”
Lohan-Bremer said that a lack of lead time for the program led to insufficient infrastructure to implement the scholarships. The program and the implementation were being developed almost simultaneously.
Despite a rocky start, the College has made efforts to inform current and prospective students through outreach. E-mails regarding the scholarship, as well as updates to various websites and informational sessions, are all being organized in response to student and parent concerns.
“We are hoping to see some changes for next year,” Lohan-Bremer said. “It takes a while with a new program for students to understand it.”
Though some have hope for the program and its benefits, others, like third-year Black studies and audio engineering double-major Freddie Johnson, do not see a bright future.
“Those who it was allegedly going to help can’t even figure it out,” Johnson said. “If Cuomo really wanted it to be a boost to New York education he would have done it earlier.”