Under the new Excelsior Scholarship, enacted as part of the state budget, SUNY and CUNY students whose families earn less than $100,000 will receive free tuition. But, of course, it’s not just free money. The many restrictions mean that the Excelsior Scholarship will be much less generous and won’t help as many students as possible.

Who’s Eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship?

The scholarship will be available to any in-state students enrolled in the State University of New York (SUNY) or the City University (CUNY) systems whose families earn $100,000 with the maximum income increasing up to $125,000 in 2019. Students must average 30 credits per year and finish their degree in four years (or two years for an Associate’s Degree). There will also be GPA requirements, though those haven’t been specified yet.

So What’s the Catch?

Students who receive the scholarship must live and work in New York for as many years as they received the scholarship. So if someone received assistance for one year, that means they’ll need to spend one year in New York. Otherwise, the scholarship will instead become a loan that graduates need to pay back. And that’s where it gets tricky.

Free College advocates say that part of the problem is the complexity of student aid right now. Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab told Gothamist: “We have college scholarships in spades, and they don’t work well partly because they are narrow and trick people.” Rather than resolving that problem by making college free, this includes numerous catches that could trip up graduates.

Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Critique

As she explains:

The “live and work” requirement stipulates that beneficiaries of the plan must repay the state by continuing to live AND work in New York for as many years as they received the benefit, otherwise the benefit converts to a loan. In other words, if they continue to live in New York but work in one of its 5 border states, they will suddenly be saddled with debt. Here’s what this will accomplish:

  1. It will incentivize unemployment. Unemployed college graduates will face a strong incentive to remain in New York, not paying taxes and leaning on the state’s social services, rather than accepting a low-paying job in New Jersey — and repaying debt.

  2. It will reduce income that could be spent in New York. People offered a low-paying job in New York and a higher-paid job in Connecticut — and could live in New York either way — will choose the lower-paying job in New York. This harms their overall earnings trajectories and reduces the amount of money they will invest in New York’s economy.

  3. It will discourage service. College graduates who see a future in the military will face a strong incentive to avoid serving their country — if they go off and serve, they must repay debt.

  4. It will discourage talent development. Sometimes getting the best possible education requires leaving New York for training or graduate school. This requirement means that those folks will be slapped with debt — which will no doubt reduce their desire to ever return to New York to start a family.

  5. It will cut against family ties. People who need to leave New York to care for a family member will also be smacked with debt. When they are done with that important work, do you really think they’ll want to return to New York?

How many students will this actually help?

While we tend to think of students as attending colleges draped with ivy and big open campuses with dorms, only a minority of students go to those schools. Over half of students go to commuter schools without dorms and about a quarter are in school only part-time or are over the age of 25. And those numbers change things quite a bit.

Cuomo claimed that 80% of New York families could benefit from the new Excelsior Scholarships, just based on the income requirements. However, according to an analysis in the New York Times, the real numbers once you consider the other requirements are much lower: only 40% of students at four-year colleges and 10% at community colleges.

Moreover, the scholarship covers only tuition, not books or food or rent. That won’t be an issue for some students but many will still need to work in order to afford to go to school. And if they have to work enough time that they can’t be full-time students, they won’t benefit from the program.

The Excelsior Scholarship is certainly a big advance and will help some students. But given the issues, critics say it should not be lauded and has plenty of room for improvement.


Get more news and explanation. Sign up for ShakingNews emails!

Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein

Posted by Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein

Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein is the founder of ShakingNews.


  1. […] Our Feature Free College? What’s the Catch with the Excelsior Scholarship? […]


  2. […] Cuomo’s big “free college” program, the Excelsior Scholarship. […]


  3. […] everyone. In that, it is significantly different than Gov. Cuomo’s free college plan, the Excelsior Scholarship, which limits its benefits to families who earn below a certain threshold. That requires government […]


  4. […] He’s seen as insufficiently progressive on the minimum wage, healthcare, and education (the Excelsior free college plan is seen as too bureaucratic and not helpful to low-income students). Transit advocates also blast […]


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *