By Zeus Sumra
Published: October 18th, 2017
The New York State’s Excelsior Scholarship, which was heavily backed by Governor Cuomo, was signed into law on April 12, 2017. Brooklyn College’s website acclaims it was “the first state scholarship in the country to make college free for middle-class families.” Universal education has been highly discussed since the 2016 Presidential campaigns, when Senator Bernie Sanders brought up the idea during debates. Now, as a reality benefiting our institution, the scholarship has been heralded as a triumph for our students. Nonetheless, it has also come with its fair share of criticism.
“[The Excelsior Scholarship] will be phased in over three years, beginning for New Yorkers making up to $100,000 annually in the fall of 2017, increasing to $110,000 in 2018, and reaching $125,000 in 2019,” according to the State University of New York’s (SUNY) official press release. The scholarship works by covering the full cost of tuition for New York State residents under the condition that they complete thirty credits per academic year and maintain a 2.0 GPA.
At first glance, the requirement to complete thirty credits per year sounds simple, but this can get very complicated and frustrating, especially for existing students. Some students may only be able to take twelve credits per semester instead on fifteen due to jobs or the rigor of their coursework. When asked about the fairness of the Excelsior Scholarship, Dr. Gabriella Sanguineti, the program director of the Collegiate of Science, Technology and Education program (C-STEP) expressed mixed emotions. “I think they are fair for first and second year students but they should have a stipulation for transfer students,” Sanguineti said.
In fact, students who have not been attending college full-time or have taken a break are still eligible for the scholarship but have to have completed at least thirty credits for each year of enrollment. Students who have not are automatically disqualified.
There is however, an accommodation where students who have completed at least fifty-four credits can make up the six credits in this academic year. Such students will be required to take thirty-six credits a year or roughly eighteen per semester. But, considering that the scholarship does not cover winter and summer classes, is it reasonable for the scholarship to demand so much from students who could not predict this?
Another troubling criterion in the scholarship is the commitment that students must make to the state after graduating from college. According to Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC), students are to “execute a contract agreeing to reside in NYS for the length of time the award was received, and, if employed during such time, be employed in NYS.” Students could be in a position where they are not certain if they can remain in New York after college due to employment or personal circumstances. Supposing one chooses to not comply with this, the scholarship would revert to a student loan, the worst nightmare of a college student.
For students who did receive the scholarship have their frustrations, as well. “Although I [was] accepted, I still have not received the scholarship [funds] as of yet,” Izadora Joseph-Augustin said. Joseph-Augustin is a freshman at Brooklyn College, majoring in Health Sciences. After reaching out to her financial advisor, she was told to just keep following up because there was a lack of information on how to proceed with her case and why funds were not yet dispersed. Like many who received the scholarship, Joseph-Augustin says that she relies heavily on the scholarship to attend college.
Many clubs and organizations on campus voiced yet another concern having to do with the time between the scholarship’s date of approval by NY State and the application deadline: it’s too short. Some said that there was simply not enough time for information to disseminate from officials to the student body. “I think a lot of students were confused about the deadlines, qualifications, and benefits of the scholarship,” Vice President of Women of Color (WOC) Rebeca Lafond said. Unlike the Pell grant and TAP awards, which have been in existence for a number of years, many financial aid advisors may not have had access to the necessary resources to aid students in the application process.
The Excelsior Scholarship was intended to be inclusive so as to address the socio-economic disparities that hindered state residents from going to college. So where does the scholarship go from here to preserve this image?
“I think that the requirements, especially since it was the first year being offered, should have been more lenient,” Marisa Gonzalez, an Early Childhood Education major said. Gonzalez went on to say that students should have time to adjust to the requirements of the scholarship. Other students like Gonzalez believe that the requirements mandated by the scholarship were unfair. If the requirements were phased in more slowly, more non-traditional students may have been able to qualify and encourage others to remain on path that would ensure that they can receive the scholarship.
As officials continue to work on making the scholarship more accessible to students, clubs and organizations on campus can help by assisting their classmates in the best way that they can. “I think WOC can help by educating or sending emails to members,” Lafond said when asked how her club would support applicants. Women of Color would not be the first on campus to do such a thing. Many other organizations on campus sent a plethora of emails in the summer reminding students to apply for the scholarship before its deadline.
Another way that students can ensure that they qualify for the scholarship is to seek advisement. The Center for Academic Advisement and Student Success ensures that students are taking the necessary courses required to graduate in a timely manner. Taking the wrong courses or switching majors can come with risks such as not graduating within four years, another stipulation of the scholarship.
It is important for students to know what resources are available to them and what actions they can take to benefit from this opportunity. Students should take advantage of a quick visit to the Office of Financial Aid located in the West Quad Building, where they can access some of the most important resources available to the student body. Students are encouraged to make an appointment with their financial aid advisors via Bulldog Connection. This is vital not only for current students receiving the scholarship to remain eligible in the next academic year but also for those who previously did not qualify.
Undoubtedly, New York will continue to be considered a leader for the trend in universal education. It would not be surprising if other states follow suit. Hopefully, necessary changes will be made to accommodate more students and allow for a smoother process.