Excelsior Scholarship: More than 325 students at Oswego State have submitted applications for the tuition-free program.
By Lou Sorendo
There’s no such thing as a free lunch. But how about college tuition?
The Excelsior Scholarship is designed to make college accessible to thousands of working and middle class students.
“There is no child who will go to sleep tonight and say, ‘I have great dreams, but I don’t believe I’ll be able to get a college education because my parents can’t afford it. With this program, every child will have the opportunity that education provides,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo while touting the program.
The governor’s office announced that more than 940,000 middle-class families and individuals making up to $125,000 per year will qualify to attend college tuition-free at all CUNY and SUNY two- and four-year colleges in New York state. The new program begins this fall.
⁄Excelsior, commonly defined as “ever upward,” will be phased in over three years, beginning for New Yorkers making up to $100,000 annually in the fall, increasing to $110,000 in 2018, and reaching $125,000 in 2019.
While it is the nation’s first accessible college program, there are limitations in terms of who can take advantage of its benefits.
Only 5 percent of currently enrolled undergraduate students across all SUNY and CUNY schools would qualify for the scholarship, because they don’t meet the requirements, according to an article in the Watertown Daily Times.
According to the Times’ article, the 30-credits-per-year requirement, put in place to encourage on-time degree completion, significantly reduces the number of eligible students.
Trisha House of SUNY Oswego’s financial aid office said returning students who didn’t accrue 30 credit hours per year since they started can’t take advantage of the Excelsior Scholarship this year.
House said typically, students in their freshman year take only 12 credit hours per semester, and would have to “overload” the next year to meet criteria.
“They are allowing a catch-up year, but of course, that won’t help seniors because this is their last year,” she said.
Applicants who first entered college as a freshman student in 2015-16 and who have earned 54 credits, or who first entered college as a freshman student in 2016-17 academic year and who earned 24 credits, can make up those six credits in 2017-18. Students who successfully earn 36 credits in the 2017-18 academic year can become eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship beginning in the 2018-19 academic year.
House said the scholarship is tailored more toward incoming freshmen and perhaps sophomores. “It’s tougher for juniors and seniors [to meet criteria guidelines],” she said.
Meanwhile, lower-income students are already plugging into financial aid mechanisms such as the state Tuition Assistance Program and the federal Pell Grant.
As a result, about 20 percent of students from SUNY and CUNY already pay no tuition, so they are not eligible for the Excelsior program.
The application deadline has passed, but SUNY Oswego financial aid workers are still going through the verification process with state officials.
“We are still getting lists of who qualifies and who doesn’t,” House said. “We have to verify their credits and things like that.”
“We do get a lot of questions on it,” she added.
She said awards are still being made, so an overall amount of how many students are getting the Excelsior Scholarship is unavailable heading into the fall semester.
House said the program really serves as a stopgap for students who are not eligible for TAP and Pell.
House said. “Students who don’t get any TAP or Pell will receive a full tuition credit for $6,470, whereas students who have a lower estimated financial contribution and are receiving maximum TAP and Pell amounts of approximately $11,000 per year will not get any Excelsior funds.
“It really affects middle-income students.”
“If any other type of scholarship is eligible to be used toward tuition in any way, shape or form, it will be taken away from the Excelsior award,” House added.
In order to apply, students must be residents of New York state; attend a SUNY or CUNY two- or four-year degree program; take 30 credits per calendar year (including January and summer sessions); and plan to live and work in New York following graduation for the length of time they participate in the scholarship program.
Also, a student who is a state resident and whose family household adjusted gross income (as filed on its 2015 federal tax returns) does not exceed $100,000 for the 2017-18 academic will be able to attend a SUNY or CUNY college tuition free.
To be considered a state resident for purposes of receiving the award, a student must have resided in the state for 12 continuous months prior to the term for which the award is being sought.
House said a recent listing included 325 students who were being put through the verification process.
“We are still getting calls from people who didn’t know there was an application process. They just thought it was automatic and there was no tuition charge, or that it was ongoing and there was no cutoff date,” she said. “There are some people who missed out on it this year because they weren’t aware.”
SUNY Oswego featured a program for returning students who met the criteria and emailed them to apply for the program before the application process began “so they wouldn’t miss out on it,” she noted.
“Of course, we had no way of doing that for new students,” she added.
Applying for Tuition-free Program
In order to apply for the Excelsior Scholarship, students must have their Free Application for Federal Student Aid and TAP applications successfully filed before they apply for the Excelsior Scholarship. After they apply, they will need to download their Student Aid Report to verify that they filed their FAFSA. In addition, if the student is returning or took college credit courses in high school, he or she needs to upload those transcripts as well.
SUNY Oswego will have the number of students who plugged into Excelsior Scholarships at the end of the fall semester.
“What we have to do is qualify how many credits students received just like we do with TAP. We will determine whether or not they get to keep the estimated award that they were given at the beginning of the semester, and that will happen at the end of the semester,” House said.
SUNY Oswego President Deborah F. Stanley said the Excelsior Scholarship expands access to many more deserving students.
“SUNY Oswego has a long-standing commitment to higher education access, college completion and cost predictability and we look forward to further expanding our support of students and their families as a result of the Excelsior Scholarship,” she added.