Free College Programs Should Be Simple, New York’s Excelsior Scholarship Is Not

The Urban Institute released a new report assessing how successful New York State’s free college program, Excelsior, has been in the five years since it was instituted. The verdict is not good. The program was the first free college proposal to cover both two and four-year institutions, leading to praise from some quarters but a lot of critique about the complexity of its design. Those critiques are holding true.

Simple, effective design of free college programs is vital to help students access college and understand what they are going to pay when they start college. Excelsior is a prime example of complex requirements getting in the way of good policy ideas, preventing many eligible students from benefiting from the program.

Excelsior was rolled out in 2017 by then Governor Cuomo with the promise to cover tuition at public institutions in New York for in-state students with family incomes of under $ 125,000. Initial estimates suggested that up to 640,000 New Yorkers would benefit from the program.

The program was designed to be last dollar, meaning it would cover any tuition that was not already paid for by other types of financial aid. The report shows that this design means most students benefiting are from middle-income families. Students from lower-income families already have their tuition covered by the Pell grant and other forms of financial aid.

The research for the report was conducted by Judith-Scott Clayton, CJ Libassi, and Daniel Sparks and was aimed at determining who is benefiting from the program.

Excelsior’s eligibility criteria and application process make it hard to access

Urban’s analysis shows that a low percentage of eligible students receive the award. Approximately 25 percent of eligible first-year students receive the award, with lower rates for Black, Hispanic, and community college students.

One of the primary challenges with the program appears to be the complex application and eligibility criteria. Students applying for Excelsior must complete three different applications, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), New York’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), and a separate Excelsior application. Additionally, students must promise to remain in New York state for at least as long after graduation as they receive funds from Excelsior. Students who fail to meet the residency requirements have their grant converted to a loan. The program is also only available to full-time students.

Many free college programs require full-time enrollment, typically 12 credits per semester. Excelsior is particularly stringent, requiring 15 credits per semester, and excludes remedial courses from being counted towards those 15 credits. Remedial courses are usually counted towards full-time enrollment for other federal and state aid programs.

Daniel Sparks noted that the multiple applications seemed to be a major hurdle for many students when answering questions by direct message. Sparks said:

“Things that seem like they could be difficult… are the relatively short and unpredictable Excelsior application window, which seems to vary from year to year and last only a couple of months and is timed differently from the other application timelines, and the opacity of the enrollment intensity and progression requirements, which were difficult for us to understand as we looked into them. ”

When expert researchers have trouble understanding the requirements for a particular program, that is usually a bad sign of how easy it will be for the average student to know what they need to do to qualify for an aid program. Recent research from the University of Michigan showed that simple design and certainty play a significant role in creating scholarship and grant programs that lead to more students applying for and enrolling in college. Excelsior seems to miss the mark on both these principles.

The challenges with first-time recipients of the award are only half the problem. Only 64 percent of the students who received the award in their first year of college and reenrolled for a second year met all the requirements to have their award renewed. In comparison, 84 percent of Pell grant recipients retained that grant into their second year.

How does it compare to other free college programs?

New Mexico recently became the second state to have a free college program covering two-year and four-year colleges. New Mexico’s program is significantly more generous and accessible than the Excelsior program. New Mexico’s program is first dollar, so students can use any other financial aid, like the Pell Grant, to pay for books, transportation, and living expenses. The program also has no income cap to qualify. It is open to both full and part-time students, making it much more accessible for today’s college students, most of whom are older, have family obligations, and find it more challenging to attend school full-time. It is too early to be certain that New Mexico’s Opportunity Scholarship will lead to better outcomes than other programs, but research on similar first dollar programs, such as the Kalamazoo Promise, suggests that simple design and limited eligibility criteria are more likely to improve outcomes.

Providing struggling students with additional financial resources is laudable, but design matters a lot. It might be time for New York to consider simplifying excelsior’s application process and eligibility criteria.

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