Will a majority of the Excelsior Scholarship applications be rejected?

Cuomo at the Excelsior announcement with Bernie Sanders. Photo courtesy LCC.

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By Darren Johnson
Campus News

I tend to err on the side of caution — as opposed to risking accidentally spreading fake news — but I got a press release today from a person I worked with before, for my May 2016 story on the free online college, University of the People (UoPeople), and it appears trustworthy. The release states: “As we know, over 50,000 applicants are to be rejected from New York’s Excelsior tuition-free college promise…” And then it pitches that these rejected students should now apply to UoPeople, instead.

OK, fair enough, UoPeople is a growing movement, and my research into them last year showed they were doing things the right way and their heart is in the right place. It’s for real, if not yet regionally accredited.

But what caught me by surprise is the 50,000 number. It was reported in The Legislative Gazette that 75,000 students applied for the “free tuition” SUNY/CUNY scholarship before the deadline. I have been calling SUNY/CUNY college leaders, for a yet-to-be-published story, who say that they have seen an uptick in applications because of the scholarship. If the UoPeople press release is to be believed, then two-thirds of students will be rejected for the “free” tuition scholarship.

Now, according the Gazette article, the state only budgeted for 23,000 awards. Demand has turned out greater than expected. I looked into this scholarship for my to-be-sophomore daughter, but she only received 26 transferable credits in her freshman year — the rules clearly state 30 credits are needed (but how would she have known to take 30 credits last year, when the rules were just announced this summer?). Maybe many other students are in the same boat as my daughter — a few credits shy of the 30, 60 or 90 required to be a true sophomore, junior or senior?

Also, during my phone calls with several SUNY/CUNY administrators, they said that they encouraged their applicants to apply for Excelsior, but these students may qualify for full rides anyway, with TAP and Pell Grants paying the relatively low tuitions instead. So perhaps they were denied Excelsior money because they didn’t need it — Excelsior doesn’t pay out if the student gets other financial aid to cover the whole bill.

Thus, maybe we shouldn’t be too alarmed by that 50,000 rejected number.

All administrators I spoke with said that while many students may not end up qualifying for Excelsior, the administrators like that the program created a positive “buzz” — telling students that college is indeed important. It encouraged students to take action and start their paths to get a degree.

What might also happen is that private colleges, which worried about declining enrollments with “free” tuition at the public colleges, may see a last-second surge in registrants, as some students were pending their final college choice on their Excelsior verdict.

In any case, Excelsior is new, and there are going to be some kinks to work out, but the overall message is good — families who earn $100,000 to 125,000 often get no aid, but they deserve some, because New York is an expensive state to live in, and $125,000 is not “wealthy” here. Hopefully, the state budgets more money for this for next year, and loosens the requirements a little bit so that more students qualify. It’s a nice perk for the often neglected middle-earners in the state.

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