For low- and middle-income high school students in New York, the prospect of attending college, especially on a full-time basis, has become increasingly bleak in recent years; tuition and other attendance costs continue to grow without a rise in education quality, “sixty-one percent of students graduate with college debt,” and debt held at graduation is increasing at “almost double the rate of inflation.” Thus, such students and their families were likely ecstatic on January 3, 2017, when Andrew Cuomo, the former Governor of New York, held an aggrandizing press conference to highlight the “1st signature proposal of his 2017 agenda: making college tuition-free for New York’s middle-class families at all SUNY and CUNY two- and four-year colleges.” Constituent expectations for the program were rightfully high, given that on the day it was enacted, then-Governor Cuomo proclaimed: “[t]here 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. . . . With this program, every child will have the opportunity that education provides.”
Hearing this proclamation, low-income and middle-class parents and students immediately inundated the administrations of the State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) with calls and emails asking how and when they could capitalize on the “free tuition.” Unfortunately for 43,513 of these inquiring students in the program’s first year, sixty-eight percent of all applicants, the answer was simply “you cannot.” While former Governor Cuomo’s public messaging that “every child will have the opportunity that education provides” was reassuring to students and their families, it was not factual. Eligibility requirements for the Excelsior Scholarship Program, ranging from residency, citizenship, income, prior and concurrent credit enrollment, student loan status, and willingness to execute and submit the Excelsior Scholarship contract, unequivocally meant that some children in former Governor Cuomo’s anecdote would still go to sleep rightfully believing that they cannot afford a college education. Simply put, the onerous requirements for students to receive the Excelsior Scholarship barred sixty-eight percent of all applicants in the program’s inaugural year, a far cry from what many would expect after the former Governor’s press release was headlined: “Groundbreaking Initiative Makes New York State Public Universities Tuition-Free . . . .”
A half-measure to meet the critical short-term needs of students, the Excelsior Scholarship was a continuation of New York leadership’s failure to meet the long-term need of balancing the state’s budget while sufficiently investing in the education of its citizens to ensure broad and equitable access to higher education. At the onset of the Excelsior Scholarship’s enactment, then New York State Assembly Republican Leader Brian Kolb criticized former Governor Cuomo for “‘simply telling New York taxpayers to write a bigger check’ . . . ‘once again his political ambitions will be subsidized by the highest-taxed people in America.’” And leading Democratic lawmakers on the issue, including Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, chair of the Committee on Higher Education, was mainly skeptical of the program’s overhyped scope compared to its funding: “[t]he cost estimate of $163 million begs the question: If it costs so little, why haven’t we done it before?” The New York Times best summarized both parties’ concerns in a scathing editorial that criticized Cuomo’s eagerness to declare himself and New York the “first” to provide tuition-free college to middle-class families, despite lacking legitimate preparation or study of the plan’s efficacy when applied to New York’s higher education system.