Earlier this year, amid great fanfare, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to expand higher-education opportunities for needy students without adding to the burden of student debt. New York progressives have lauded Cuomo’s Excelsior Plan, as has Bernie Sanders, and the proposal has become law. Closer examination reveals, however, that Excelsior will benefit fewer students than it claims, saddle others with debt, and perhaps even discourage the state’s beleaguered university system from admitting them.

Contrary to Cuomo’s claims, the program does little to make college “free.” It offers a maximum grant of just $5,500, less than the state system’s already-low college tuition of about $6,400. If a student has other scholarship monies at his or her disposal, such as Pell grants, Excelsior will make up the difference, but only for tuition—leaving the student dependent on other resources for room, board, books, transportation, and daily expenses. For students at public universities, these additional costs are by far the greatest. Further, Excelsior stipulates that students receiving monies maintain a course load of at least 30 credit-hours a year, a heavier load than most full-time students carry these days. It demands that recipients work in New York after graduation for at least as many years as they enjoyed their Excelsior Scholarship.  If the student fails to meet these and other requirements, he or she must repay the Excelsior monies on a prorated basis.

The program will tempt many into debt that they would not otherwise incur. The problem: Excelsior will discourage needy students from working their way through college, as they have in the past, by making room in their schedule for employment and taking a year or two longer than the usual four to earn their degrees. Because the scholarship terms dictate at least 30 credit-hours per year, only the most dedicated and prudent students will manage to incorporate work into their routine. Rather than give up the benefit, many others will turn to debt, borrowing for the bulk of their expenses.

The 30-credit requirement makes no allowance for the kinds of interruptions—from family emergencies to bad course choices resulting in failing grades—that derail so many students nowadays from finishing college in four years. (Less than half of students at New York’s public universities do so.) Because any deviation from the scholarship’s conditions turns the grant into a loan, the state’s seeming largess will wind up adding to students’ debt burdens. Even many of those who avoid such interruptions and manage to maintain the 30-credit standard will see the scholarship turn to debt if they fail to comply with the requirement that they remain in New York for several years—even if they have to turn down good-paying out-of-state jobs.

Excelsior will also make it harder for needy students to find a place in the state university system. These schools, operating on shoestring budgets, struggle to keep student costs low; tuition revenue scarcely covers the cost of providing an undergraduate education. With negligible endowments, the state’s public universities have few resources with which to fill the financial gap. To avoid operating in the red, they face strong temptation to admit out-of-state and overseas students, who pay higher tuitions. It’s easy to see how, under such intense financial pressure, the state schools might be reluctant to admit too many Excelsior students.

Without judging the wisdom of Cuomo’s free-tuition goal, the Excelsior plan doesn’t go very far toward achieving it. It may well work to keep New York State’s liabilities under control while enhancing Cuomo’s progressive profile, but it will do so by hurting more students than it helps. Whatever its boosters might say about its supposed affordability, Excelsior will likely prove too costly, in multiple ways. 

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images


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