Is Free College Really Free?


May 18, 2017 by poverty2professional

Last month, New York governor Andrew Cuomo made waves on Wednesday, April 12, at a bill-signing ceremony at La Guardia Community College in Queens. The enactment? Free tuition throughout the state. It’s called the Excelsior Scholarship.

Branded as “First-in-the-Nation,” the Excelsior Scholarship will undoubtedly secure Cuomo a legacy in postsecondary history. Yet while social media channels lit up with  announcements of “free college!” few people in postsecondary education and policy seem to be chomping at the bit to have this plan enacted. What’s the reluctance about? I mean, free college! Did they miss a memo?

…or did the public?

Origins and Approval Process

According to Governor Cuomo’s webpage for the Excelsior Scholarship, 3.5 million jobs in New York State will require an associate’s degree or higher by 2024. That’s about 420,000 more jobs than in 2014. Considering the increasing demand for college graduates in the workforce, an amendment was made at the insistence of Republicans in the State Senate: college graduates who received the Excelsior must live and work in New York State for as many years as they received the Excelsior after graduation. So, if you received the scholarship for two years at a community college, but never again after you transferred to a four-year campus, then you only need to work in-state for two years after graduation.

What happens if you get a job offer in New Jersey (which is a short commute for many New Yorkers) and accept it? The Excelsior retroactively becomes a loan. That’s right, you are then forced to pay back the money for “free college.” Not a very friendly policy for students who are supposed to be in need of financial assistance. While the GOP worried that about providing “New York education for New Yorkers,” no one seemed to considered the economic toll of increased unemployment if said New Yorkers couldn’t find work in their own state. Many may also work in bordering states while still living in New York and thereby still investing disposable income into the New York economy.

But I digress.

It should be noted that state officials plan to accommodate graduates who leave the state for military service.


What Is It?

The Excelsior Scholarship is a “last dollar” program that will be phased in over three years. Its first year in fall 2017 will assist families making up to $100,000 annually, increasing to $110,000 in 2018, and reaching $125,000 in 2019. Students must be enrolled full-time and enrolled in 30 credits per year (about 15 per semester) in order to graduate on-time depending on their institution (community college or four-year university). The Excelsior is vaguely described as having built in flexibility so that any student facing hardship is able to pause and restart the program, or take fewer credits one semester than another.

However, who exactly falls into the Excelsior’s eligible profile? News flash: Not the students you’d hope. Most low-income students enrolled in New York’s public campus systems, the City University of New York (CUNY) and the State University of New York (SUNY), have tuition met by Federal Pell grants or state aid. Last-dollar aid will not provide additional resources once tuition is met. As Mamie Voight, Vice President for Policy Research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) , keenly observed, “Last-dollar proposals divert resources to higher-income students who may already be able to afford college, leaving low-income students struggling to pay other education-related expenses.”

In other words, all the real stuff you would need to go to college – living expenses, books, and other areas of greatest need for low-income students will not be covered by Excelsior. These are students who are one flat tire away from not showing up in class, students for whom a sudden out-of-pocket expense would be too outrageous to afford, that are not being granted access to the “free” college movement.


This means that the impact on the student body itself – for the segment of the population that is making too much for full federal/state aid, but not enough to sustain themselves without a loan — is actually fairly small. The estimated impact at the SUNY schools is a modest 80,000 individuals, which is only 20% of total undergraduate population across the system. The numbers at the CUNY system is much lower with a mere 3,000-5,000 students estimated to be affected out of the total 516,000 in CUNY system. That’s less than one percent! If this program is intended to bring sweeping change to New York State, then why does it have such a narrow impact?

Finally, the program is expected to cost $87 million in the initial 2017-18 school year, and $163 million by 2019-20. That’s a pretty hefty price for a small group that stands to benefit.


The Excelsior is great for traditional, but not typical, college students. What’s meant by traditional? Your middle-class 18-24 year-old who doesn’t have to work more than fifteen hours per week at a part-time job because he’s well-off enough not to need to support himself (or a family) financially. This is not the reality of the lives of many CUNY and SUNY students. A typical college student, by contrast, is working at 75% time or full-time. They cannot take the full load of classes because they are already attempting to balance school with survival. But the Excelsior scholarship isn’t meant for groceries, rent, or flat-tires – it’s meant for a tuition that students are already receiving assistance for.

Additionally, a student who does successfully complete college may find themselves broke and unemployed, stuck in their homestate in an attempt to avoid taking out an additional loan. Which loan? The Excelsior. The scholarship reverts to a loan if the student leaves to another state to go work. When you’re in New York, it’s not uncommon to travel to New Jersey just over the river. With student unsure of which of the two evils to pick (student loan debt or unemployment), the Excelsior is placing a choke-hold on the New York economy.

So, who benefits? Students who can already afford to be enrolled full-time, not low-income, not students with full-time or multiple jobs, not the students who will get the most out of a bachelor’s degree.

It should also be noted that financial assistance – even a full-ride – is not the panacea to increased college persistence. Students still need wrap-around support services, such as advisors – both academic counselors and mentors – in addition to social acceptance and appropriate levels of academic challenge. Financial assistance is just one gear of the process. And if that gear is not properly fitted to address the needs of the students, then it’s not going to produce a very efficient (or functional) machine.

So, is free college bad? No, but it needs to be correctly executed. In an attempt to ease the increasing financial burdens of postsecondary education, we should be looking for ways not only to make the system affordable but more importantly, allow students to leave with a sense of equity in their higher education experiences.



One thought on “Is Free College Really Free?

  1. Lynn Gardner says:

    Illuminating article, thanks for writing it.


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