In spring 2017, Governor Cuomo announced the Excelsior Scholarship, a state-funded effort to decrease student debt. So where are we now?
Posted by Gen FKD on Thursday, July 19, 2018
On a slow Thursday night, Arleta Salvati sat at the desk in her boyfriend’s empty bedroom to reassess her finances. Logging onto her university’s website, she did the calculations over again for the 100th time in her college career. The stress of her student debt was incredible. Currently, she worked at her local grocery store in Huntington, Long Island. She predicted that if she worked there for about 10 years, she could pay off her student debt in full – but that would also be putting her life on hold, including paying rent, utilities, food, etc., and she still would need to consider the interest left over.
The Excelsior Scholarship
Salvati was a part of the most recent graduating class of SUNY Stony Brook, where she studied biomedical engineering. In order for her to be competitive in her field, she’ll likely need to attend a graduate program, only adding more to her overall student debt before she can begin her career path.
Last year, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo initially announced his ground-breaking plan for a state-funded college scholarship, otherwise known as the Excelsior Scholarship, he claimed that “nearly 80 percent or more than 940,000 families with college-aged children across New York would qualify for tuition-free college at SUNY and CUNY [schools].” To Salvati, this news felt like a saving grace — something that might significantly decrease her long-term student debt. The reality of the scholarship, however, was that it would not be available to her. Despite a reported 75,000 initial applications to the scholarship program last August, fewer than 25,000 students statewide actually qualified for it.
“It was like giving a false hope,” Salvati said. “I think the requirement I didn’t meet is kind of not fair … nobody said anything to me about this coming scholarship and that I would have needed to take a certain amount of credits to get there. I was only off by one credit my freshman year.”
Salvati was rejected from the program retroactively, as the Excelsior Scholarship’s strict criteria require students to take 30 credits a year successively. But the scholarship’s overbearing demands on students punish productivity in other ways, as well.
Last August, The New York Times reported that “Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said that those in lower income brackets are more likely to take breaks in their education because of work and family responsibilities.” That essentially denies aid to those who potentially need it most.
“As a full-time student, you only need 12 credits,” Salvati said. “If you are paying for college as you’re going through it, and so you’re working, you might want to take fewer credits.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the scholarship also punishes those students who wish to pursue double majors. Their interest in taking double course loads, which previously was considered economical because it translates to more bang for your buck, will punish them in case they don’t graduate within the four-year time constraint of the scholarship. Oliver Vestal, a senior at SUNY Purchase who was one of the few recipients of the Excelsior in its first year, realized that his pursuit of a double bachelor’s degree would place him in peril with the scholarship “almost right away.”
“My second major is a very intensive one,” Vestal said. “It requires a lot of upper-level classes, including upper-level art classes. I knew when I started the second major, which was that same year, that I would have a lot of trouble.”
Vestal currently is expected to graduate one semester late, jeopardizing him in the eyes of the Excelsior scholarship. However, this potential issue won’t prevent him from receiving the scholarship funds per see. Instead, when he graduates, the money is expected to revert to an interest-free loan.
The idea behind the program is earnest — reduce student debt to help the future economy. But the program’s implementation is questionable. If so few students received the aid, then the scholarship’s projected impact must surely be re-evaluated.
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