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Free College, Strings Attached | Dissent Magazine

Free College, Strings Attached | Dissent Magazine

Free School, Strings Hooked up

Two years in the past, New York carried out a program promising free tuition. However insurance policies that don’t supply help to part-time college students solely deepen inequality in greater schooling.

Amir Khafagy ▪ March 27, 2019
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo saying the Excelsior Scholarship in 2017 (Governor Andrew Cuomo/Flickr)

A couple of weeks in the past Senator Bernie Sanders kicked off his 2020 presidential bid with a rally at Brooklyn School. Among the many slew of marketing campaign pledges Sanders made throughout his speech, the one which resonated most amongst a crowd full of school college students was his name totally free school tuition for all. Over the previous few years, the thought—a signature Sanders coverage proposal within the 2016 Democratic primaries—has gone mainstream, gaining traction amongst nationwide policymakers and politicians alike. On the state and native degree, there at the moment are over 350 tuition-free school packages, utilizing each private and non-private funds. California alone has forty-three.

Two years in the past, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced his personal statewide free-college experiment. Generally known as the Excelsior Scholarship, this system claimed to make New York’s public schools tuition “free” for all college students whose households earn $110,000 a yr or much less (the cap was elevated to $125,000 this yr and can ultimately go as excessive as $200,000). When first introduced, Excelsior was met with a bathe of reward by progressives similar to Sanders, who stood by Cuomo’s aspect when he introduced the plan. “What Governor Cuomo is proposing is a revolutionary concept for larger schooling, and it’s going to reverberate not solely all through the state of New York, however all through this nation,” Sanders proclaimed to a crowd of scholars and school at LaGuardia Group School in Queens. Nevertheless, as daring as this system initially appeared, it got here with caveats that went unmentioned in Cuomo’s speech.

The Excelsior Scholarship is strictly that—a scholarship, and never the “free” school program that made nationwide headlines. Hundreds of scholars whose households’ earnings fall under the $125,000 threshold have been unable to qualify for it, and lots of others certified however later had the scholarship revoked as a result of they weren’t capable of meet considered one of various necessities with which college students are pressured to conform.

Within the meantime, tuition on the Metropolis College of New York has solely gotten costlier. CUNY’s board of trustees has elevated tuition over 35 % since 2011, together with a $200 hike in annual tuition final yr. “How rather more can college students bear?” requested Hercules Reid, vice chairman of legislative affairs for the CUNY College Scholar Senate.


“Once I first heard about Excelsior, I assumed it was going to make my life a lot simpler,” stated Yerania Galarza, a junior at Queens School majoring in vitamin science who transferred final fall Yerania from Queens Borough Group School. She was enthusiastic to start learning at a four-year school. When she discovered that her federal monetary assist package deal would solely cowl a part of her tuition she was informed by an advisor that she would be capable of qualify for the brand new Excelsior Scholarship. Galarza’s advisor knowledgeable her that so long as she maintained thirty credit a yr, or 5 courses per semester, she would proceed to be coated by this system. Optimistic about her future at Queens School, she utilized within the fall and was awarded $600 per semester.

In the course of the spring semester, Galarza started to seek out it troublesome to stability her strenuous work life and her heavy course load. “The work was catching as much as me, so I felt that I needed to drop a category simply so I might breathe.” When she determined to drop her one-credit fitness center course, she came upon that not solely did she not qualify for the scholarship however that her preliminary award had reverted right into a $1,200 mortgage. “Once I came upon I not certified I used to be shocked,” stated Galarza. “Perhaps as a result of this system was new I assumed it had some glitches or one thing. However once I went to the finical assist workplace, it appeared like no one knew how this system labored. All they might do is refer me to the web site.”

In truth, final August, SUNY monetary help officers expressed their very own frustration with how this system has been rolled out. “We’ve got gone months with out formal written steerage,” stated Sarah Buell, a SUNY monetary help officer from western New York. “We’re primarily, in our 64 campuses, establishing 64 totally different variations of this program.” In response, the state arrange an internet site and hotline to deal with scholar and administrator considerations. State officers have attributed the difficult maze of pink tape to rising pains which might be pure for any new program of Excelsior’s magnitude, however for college kids the tempo at which the problems are being labored out doesn’t appear quick sufficient.

On-line, Galarza discovered a disorganized web site that left her with extra questions than solutions. She tried calling the hotline, however the operators weren’t allowed to take a look at her private info. When she requested for extra particulars relating to the necessities to stay in good standing in this system, she was by no means given a transparent reply, nor might they inform her why she was disqualified from this system due to solely dropping a one-credit class. “It’s fairly dumb to drive college students to take 5 courses, particularly if the scholar is an incoming freshman,” she stated. “They’re simply going to have a tough time dealing with that type of workload for the primary time.”

Yerania’s story is way from distinctive. A current research revealed by the Middle for an City Future discovered that 68 % of scholars who utilized for the scholarship have been denied. Nearly all of these have been denied as a result of they have been unable to attend school full-time as Excelsior requires. At LaGuardia Group School, the venue the place Cuomo selected to announce the Excelsior Scholarship, 45 % of scholars are registered part-time, making a big portion of the scholar physique ineligible for this system. “The scholars who actually need monetary help probably the most and who stand to profit probably the most from tuition-free public school are those who’re neglected,” stated Julia Salazar, the democratic socialist New York state senator from Brooklyn. “Center-class college students and low-income college students shouldn’t should be preventing over scraps. We might present tuition-free public school for everybody.”

Based mostly on revenue alone, the overwhelming majority of LaGuardia college students can be eligible without spending a dime tuition. Sixty % of scholars obtain monetary assist; 72.5 % of scholars’ households make lower than $30,000 a yr. Furthermore, of the 45,694 college students enrolled in a level program at LaGuardia, solely 6 % are white. Given these types of numbers, many consider that Excelsior is blatantly discriminatory towards low-income college students and college students of shade who can’t afford the privilege of attending faculty full-time with out sacrificing job and household obligations.

“The Excelsior Scholarship is an effective begin however wants reform,” stated Emily Skydel, the Free and High quality CUNY marketing campaign coordinator for New York Public Curiosity Analysis Group. “For instance, assist have to be provided in the summertime and winter semesters. We’ve already heard from college students who’ve misplaced the scholarship as a consequence of stringent credit score necessities which are unrealistic.”

Different advocates consider a extra in depth overhaul is important. “The Excelsior Scholarship ought to be scrapped utterly, and we should always have a return to completely free tuition,” stated Corrinne Greene, a scholar activist at Brooklyn School and chapter president of Younger Progressives of America. “This system is discriminatory and supplies no help in any respect for many who don’t qualify on technicalities.” Greene, a vocal grassroots activist preventing to make entry to CUNY a proper assured by the state, has no scarcity of ideas for reform. “I consider there’s a excellent historic mannequin for a way CUNY and SUNY ought to be funded. Our tax dollars are provided up as incentives to giant corporations often,” she stated. “At minimal, we have to instantly return to the historic ranges of state funding for SUNY and CUNY.” She helps earmarking income from legalized leisure marijuana for instructional and felony justice reform.


The Excelsior program is way from distinctive in forcing low-income college students to be enrolled full-time and making them hop by means of various obstacles to qualify at no cost tuition. Along with credit score necessities, a proposed program in West Virginia makes free tuition conditional on sustaining a grade-point common, passing a drug check every semester (which college students are required to pay for), and performing eight hours of group service throughout their time of research. Restrictions like these make it much more troublesome for low-income college students to succeed. Such packages don’t deal with schooling without any consideration however as a privilege that may be taken away at any time, with probably the most weak college students almost certainly to fail.

Half-time college students symbolize 37 % of the nation’s school scholar inhabitants, in line with a research by the Middle for American Progress. On common, part-time college students are over twenty-four years previous and are supporting themselves financially. Almost three-quarters of them are juggling a job and faculty, and 42 % work at the least forty hours per week. Virtually 4 in ten stay with dependents. Tuition-relief insurance policies that ignore these realities fail to serve the very individuals they need to profit most.

With a lot duty outdoors of faculty, most part-time college students by no means see commencement. Supporters of full-time enrolment necessities for packages comparable to Excelsior level to the decrease commencement charges as a purpose to incentivize college students to attend faculty full-time. It’s potential that Excelsior might push college students deciding between part- and full-time to go for the latter, however the clear result’s a program that punishes individuals who haven’t any selection however to attend faculty part-time. “On common, a standard, full-time scholar with a household revenue of $30,000 or much less attending a four-year establishment would have half of her value of attendance coated by help,” notice the authors of the Middle for American Progress research. “An grownup 25 or older attending part-time with the identical revenue might anticipate to obtain assist masking solely 17 % of her value.” They conclude that “Whereas state insurance policies that tie monetary help to on-time credit score accumulation are comparatively new, it seems that they might help some college students do higher whereas leaving others behind.”

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination will possible as soon as once more make tuition-free public school a focus of nationwide debate. This time, experiences like these underneath the Excelsior Scholarship ought to push us to transcend the slogan. In February, a coalition of scholars throughout CUNY and SUNY joined collectively to do their half in an open letter to Sanders that requested him to rescind his endorsement for Excelsior. “You possibly can remind Cuomo and your complete Democratic institution what actual free school for all seems like, how it may be achieved, and why it can rework our nation for the higher,” stated the letter. They referred to as this system “a catastrophe for a lot of low-income college students right here at CUNY who’re struggling to afford larger schooling.”

With its strict credit score necessities and conditions about commencement time, New York’s “free” school program provides pointless burdens on college students who’ve been traditionally marginalized from educational establishments. A free-college-for-all program ought to keep in mind the complicated realities school college students face and never pressure a one-size-fits-all strategy that may do extra hurt than good. Politicians and policymakers have to be able to acknowledge the errors of New York’s experiment and supply an alternate mannequin rooted in financial and racial justice.

Amir Khafagy is a New York Metropolis–based mostly journalist. He has contributed to such publications as CityLab, Jacobin, Shelterforce, Curbed, Metropolis Limits, and In These Occasions. Discover him on Twitter @AmirKhafagy91.

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