How the Excelsior Scholarship Fell Flat

By Victoria Merlino

Lewis Diep almost lost his Excelsior scholarship due to semester-based credit requirement.

Lewis Diep works hard. He currently serves as a senator in Baruch College’s Undergraduate Student Government. He’s the former president of the United Chinese Language Association, one of Baruch’s largest clubs. Of the roughly 15,000 students on campus, he’s one of a few — less than 3 percent — who has an Excelsior Scholarship.

When New York state first started offering CUNY and SUNY students what was being called “free tuition” in 2017, Diep was hopeful that the scholarship would help ease some of the financial burden his parents faced.

Diep, 21, quickly learned the low percentage of students who received the scholarship during its first year — just 20,086 in 2017, according to the Center for an Urban Future — is not a fluke. Despite qualifying, he almost lost his Excelsior scholarship due to a technicality involving the number of credits he had completed before applying for the scholarship. Despite the state’s promise to “alleviate the crushing burden” of student debt for “hundreds of thousands of students across the state,” many middle class students across New York are finding themselves challenged by a bureaucratic process and onerous application requirements.

That’s not the way the scholarship was billed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Of the roughly 461,000 families with college-age students in New York City, 84.3 percent would be eligible for the scholarship, according to the statement released by the governor’s office the day the program was announced. Diep was among the first pool of applicants.

“Today, college is what high school was. It should always be an option even if you can’t afford it. The Excelsior Scholarship will make college accessible to thousands of working and middle class students and shows the difference that government can make,” Cuomo said in a press release.

More scholarships are always good news for CUNY students. As of fall 2017, 42.2 percent of CUNY’s roughly 244,000 students have a household income of less than $20,000 between the senior and community colleges, according to CUNY’s semester demographic profile.

The state’s poorest students, however, were never the scholarship’s main focus.

Low-income students are covered by Pell Grants or New York’s Tuition Assistance Program, which, like the scholarship, give money to students to pay for college based on financial need without requiring them to pay it back — though poor students often have trouble paying for school supplies and basic living expenses..

Pell Grant recipients at CUNY number 61.5 percent, according to CUNY enrollment data, and can get a maximum of $6,095, which covers almost the full-tuition cost of $6,730 at senior colleges in the university system. TAP is also based on financial need but has a household income limit of $80,000, excluding students whose family incomes fall just above that threshold.

The Excelsior Scholarship was designed to help students like Diep, whose family income falls above the cut-off for both TAP and bigger Pell Grants when he applied in 2017.

To be eligible for an Excelsior scholarship, a student must also be a resident of the state and a student at a CUNY or SUNY two- or four-year college and have plans to live and work in the state following graduation for the same length of time the student paid for college with the scholarship.

Students must also take 30 credits-worth of classes a school year — a requirement that has tripped up many Excelsior applicants and nearly resulted in Diep losing his scholarship.

When he met with a financial aid officer at Baruch College, Diep recalls being told “‘Oh, you don’t qualify,’” because he had dropped a class the semester he applied for the scholarship, which meant he would not receive 30 credits for the year.

As many students discover, the scholarship’s credit requirements apply retroactively to past years at CUNY;  if students do not complete 30 credits in a year before receiving the scholarship, they are automatically ineligible — though they can catch up on missed credits to apply for the scholarship in the future.

Diep’s scholarship was saved when he realized that he could use his AP credits from high school to fulfill the credit requirement. But it took “two to like three months just to argue for it,” he said. “It made me feel like they didn’t really look over my transcript.”

“I think the ‘scholarship’ has been nothing more than a talking point for Gov. Cuomo and the state legislature,” said Liam Giordano, a Baruch delegate to the University Student Senate. The senate gathers students from all CUNY schools to advocate for students about issues like the scholarship.

Even with the scholarship, Diep says it can be difficult to pay for other school expenses that the scholarship does not cover, such as books.

Its other limitation — requiring him to stay in the state after graduation — also puts a strain on Diep. As a computer information systems major, he faces the harsh reality that if there is a better job for him after graduation in Silicon Valley, he would have to pay back all the money he got from the scholarship. For students who don’t complete the in-state work requirement the scholarship turns into a loan. Diep says he would swallow the loan, though, if it meant working for a tech giant.

Even students who don’t have trouble meeting the credit requirements of the scholarship can face hurdles. For example, Grace Graham, a Baruch transfer student from Long Island, had no real issues with applying for, and receiving, the scholarship. “I just got lucky,” she said. But, she says that some scholarship limitations were not clearly conveyed; for  instance, she thought the class she took last summer would be covered. But it wasn’t. Overall, however, Graham says her experience with the scholarship has been positive, noting that it allowed her to pay for her apartment close to the college.

For the many CUNY and SUNY students who are working parents and who go to school part-time, however, the Excelsior scholarship remains out of reach.