Dive Brief:

  • Students enrolled at City University of New York (CUNY) colleges and the state’s community colleges aren’t benefiting from its highly touted free scholarship program, according to an analysis by think tank Center for an Urban Future (CUF). 

  • Despite making up nearly half of the state’s undergraduates, community college students statewide received only 19% of the Excelsior scholarships in 2018, a 5-percentage-point decrease from the prior year. CUNY students got 16% of the awards. 

  • Whether tuition-free college disproportionately benefits middle-income and wealthy students has been an oft-debated topic in the 2020 presidential contest and as more states move to add such programs. 

Dive Insight:

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made headlines in 2017 when he signed the Excelsior Scholarship program into law.

Free tuition programs have exploded across the U.S., but Cuomo’s was significant in that it was the first to offer qualifying students a free education at both the state’s two- and four-year colleges.

In exchange for having tuition covered, students in New York’s program agree to work in the state for as many years as they received the scholarship. If they move, it would become a no-interest loan they would need to repay.

Despite being designed to assist the state’s needier students, however, the scholarship has helped those enrolled at State University of New York System (SUNY) far more than those at CUNY, its less-expansive counterpart, according to CUF’s analysis.

The number of scholarships awarded jumped by 23% in a single year — from 20,458 in 2017 to 25,100 in 2018. SUNY students received 84% of the Excelsior scholarships in 2018, compared to CUNY, which only got 16%. Meanwhile, SUNY enrolled 61% of students while CUNY enrolled 39%. 

Across both systems, four-year schools received more awards than two-year schools in 2018 (81% and 19%, respectively) despite enrolling similar shares of students (53% and 47%).

One reason for the disparities, the report’s authors note, is that many low-income students already have access to other aid. Another is that the program requires students to enroll in at least 30 credits a year and have some college experience, disqualifying part-time students. 

The program has added flexibility in response to this criticism. Initially, students needed to complete the 30 credits within two semesters, but now they can space them over an entire year, including winter and summer semesters.

Additionally, the increase in the income threshold for the program from $100,000 in its inaugural year to $125,000 last year isn’t likely to improve access, they wrote, noting that the program doesn’t cover nontuition costs low-income students may struggle with, such as food, housing, child care and transportation. In January, Cuomo proposed expanding the program limit to $150,000. 

The concept of free college has grown increasingly popular as candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination debate their higher education plans. But in practicality these programs can be flawed, as CUF’s report demonstrates.

An Urban Institute study of the free college landscape revealed that more than a third of free college benefits apply to students whose families earn more than $120,000 a year.

Free college programs tend to pay just for tuition, and only after all other aid is calculated, meaning a student who qualifies for Pell Grants would receive less aid than one who doesn’t. Some current or proposed programs cover costs aside from tuition, however, that could otherwise prevent low-income students from being able to attend college even if their tuition is covered.

Both of the Democratic contenders still in the race have developed free college plans. The presumed frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, wants to make up to two years of community college free and also indicated he supports the idea for some students at four-year public institutions. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ proposal is more progressive, eliminating tuition at all two- and four-year publics.

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