Financial Aid Officers Fed Up Regarding Confusion Over New York’s Free College Program

Neetu Chandak | Contributor

State University of New York (SUNY) financial aid officers are fed up over the confusion and lack of clarity from the government surrounding the Excelsior Scholarship, which offers free tuition to middle-class college students in the state.

“We have gone months without formal written guidance,” Sarah Buell, a SUNY financial aid officer, said, according to a Wednesday Times Union report.

New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed the “nation’s first accessible college program” in 2017 with the idea passing the state legislature that same year. The program was supposed to accommodate for costs not covered by financial aid programs or grants

Students must be New York state residents, attend a SUNY or City University of New York (CUNY) school for either a two or four-year program, take 30 credits per calendar year, maintain passing grades, plan to live and work in the state for the amount of time they received assistance and come from households earning less than $110,000, according to the provisions. The eligibility will expand over the next three years to students coming from households earning up to $125,000.

Buell, however, said many of the students do not understand the specifics of the program. “There are just a lot of nuances in the program,” she said, the Union reported.

Officers must go through a strenuous process of confirming household incomes as well as check student’s credit load per year.

“This has been an enormous task for us on multiple levels,” Higher Education Service Corp. (HESC) President Guillermo Linares said, according to the Union.

“The Excelsior Scholarship is now a year old and New York has devoted an enormous amount of resources towards explaining its policies and procedures,” Cuomo spokesman Don Kaplan said in a statement to the Union. “We would encourage any students to contact HESC directly if their schools are incapable of providing the appropriate direction.”

Buell, who indicated she was speaking as a SUNY Financial Aid Professionals member, said at a HESC board of trustees meeting Wednesday that it felt like every SUNY school was “establishing 64 different versions of this program.”

The problems associated with free tuition extend beyond SUNY schools as well. (RELATED: Cuomo Demands That New York Colleges Expand Race Based Admissions)

New York private schools also have the Enhanced Tuition Awards (ETA) program, which was created to make the competition with tuition-free public schools fair, though only 30 out of the over 100 private schools are part of the program because of restrictions.

Independent universities cannot raise the cost of attendance for individual ETA recipients, but they can raise the cost for non-ETA students. This provision often confuses such universities to believe they cannot increase the overall tuition, according to HESC trustee and Clarkson University President Anthony Collins.

“It’s really a strong misperception out there,” Collins said to the Union.

Approximately 23,000 students across the state are expected to use the program for the 2018-2019 school year.

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