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Making college accessible to all in New York

A college degree offers many advantages: More career options and opportunities, greater job security and the ability to earn more money in your lifetime. According to the office of New York Governor Andrew W. Cuomo, 3.5 million New York State jobs will require an Associate’s degree or higher by 2024 — that’s roughly 420,000 more jobs than in 2014. A college degree, however, does not come cheap. For many, it’s virtually cost prohibitive.

Until, perhaps, now.

In 2017, Governor Cuomo announced a first-in-the-nation program — the Excelsior Scholarship Program — designed to make college accessible to working and middle class students by providing a tuition-free education at New York’s public colleges and universities. According to Cuomo’s office, nearly 80 percent of the state’s residents — or 940,000 families and individuals — qualify to attend a CUNY or SUNY two- or four-year college under the program. Approximately 68,712 reside in Western New York.

“Governor Cuomo has said a college degree is equivalent to a high school diploma 30 years ago, and can be key to future economic success,” says Elizabeth Bibi, Deputy Director of Media Relations for Governor Cuomo. “With Excelsior, every student in New York will have the opportunity that education provides.”

Excelsior Scholarship Program | Destination EDU Buffalo

Governor Cuomo, joined by Secretary Hillary Clinton, signed legislation enacting the Excelsior Scholarship Program for tuition-free college on April 12, 2017. (Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

Excelsior is intended to supplement all current aid programs, including TAP, PELL and SUNY/CUNY Tuition Credit programs. It will then provide assistance to cover any tuition gaps, making college tuition free at New York’s prized public universities.

The program is being phased in over three years. New Yorkers making up to $100,000 annually qualified in the first phase, which began fall 2017. Qualifying income increases to $110,000 in 2018 and to $125,000 in 2019. Resident scholars must be enrolled in college full-time and average 30 credits per year (including summer and January semesters) to receive the funding; however, the program has built-in flexibility so students facing hardship can pause and restart the program or take fewer credits in one semester over another.

Students must maintain the grade point average necessary for successful completion of their coursework and will be required to live and work in New York State for the same number of years after graduation as they received the scholarship while in school.

How is the program faring in its first year?

Niagara County Community College | The Excelsior Scholarship Program | Destination EDU Buffalo

The Excelsior Scholarship Program offers a tuition-free education at SUNY and CUNY schools, including Niagara County Community College. (Niagara County Community College)

According to the Governor’s office, approximately 45,000 students were determined eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship and are attending SUNY or CUNY tuition-free, including more than 23,000 who will have their tuition covered through TAP, Pell and other financial aid, and nearly 22,000 who will have their remaining tuition costs covered by the Scholarship – numbers that align with the State’s initial projections for year one.

“Excelsior is designed to help as many students as possible attend college tuition-free while boosting on-time completion and reducing student debt,” says Bibi. “We are thrilled that in its first year, the scholarship is already helping thousands of New Yorkers attend college with zero tuition costs — that’s something to be celebrated.”

Scott Weltjen is the Director of Financial Aid for Erie Community College, the second largest college in Western New York and part of the SUNY system. “We have seen a definite uptick in applications,” says Weltjen. “While we can’t be entirely sure what’s driving that, we think the Excelsior program has had a positive impact.

“This program helps students stay on track and pushes them toward on-time graduation, which is positive. It also helps those who are under the adjusted gross threshold avoid loans,” says Weltjen. “We encourage students to apply for all the funding for which they qualify and see what happens. If the Excelsior program offers another option to get that education, that’s great. We definitely think it will help boost enrollment and admissions, so it’s win-win.”

Justin Rogers, Director of Undergraduate Admissions for Canisius College, a private Jesuit Catholic college consistently ranked among the top regional institutions in the northeast, agrees that “anything that can be done to allow someone access to a college education is great.” However, he says Excelsior includes some stipulations that might not be achievable by everyone. “Having to stay in New York is very limiting for those pursuing a career that warrants going out of state. Graduating in four years is not always feasible for a variety of reasons, and the academic components of the program are fairly strict.”

Rogers says Canisius definitely experienced a decline in enrollment this past fall because of the Excelsior program, but tackled the issue of college affordability by lowering its tuition by 23 percent.

“Our Excellence Within Reach program removed the confusing high tuition, high discount model that proved to be a roadblock to many families who perceived a private education to be out of reach financially,” said Rogers. “Excellence Within Reach increases accessibility and affordability for students and families for a premier Jesuit, Catholic education.”

As a college education is increasingly necessary to secure the jobs of tomorrow, the Excelsior Scholarship offers one more way to ensure New York’s students have access to a quality education and the skills they need to succeed. For more information about the program, visit New York State’s Higher Education Services Corporation.

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