Free Tuition? The Fine Print on New York’s Excelsior Scholarship

By Deb Coco, College Admissions Coach, The College Advisor of New York

Free is an enticing word and it grabs our attention.  So when New York unveiled its Excelsior Scholarship or “free” tuition program, the buzz began in earnest.  And with good reason.  Parents of prospective college students are especially vulnerable right now as the middle class has suffered with the outrageous rise in college tuition and little to fall back upon.  We address this demographic often and witness the examples on a personal level.  Families who believe they’ve saved well and done the right thing by their children sit with jaws dropped when they hear the finances of their particular situation, and they’re not alone.  For most families who are not considered “super rich” there are some tough decisions to be made when it comes to how to pay for college.

The quick facts look like this:  If your income falls below these middle class parameters, you’ll be a candidate for filing a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).   As such, your student will most likely receive a financial aid package with a mix of loans, grants and work study.  In past blogs I’ve discussed how crucial it is (EARLY in your process) to have a professional calculate your EFC (Expected Family Contribution).  This is the amount that the college (and the government) believes you can spend per year on one child.  Brace yourself;  it’s always MUCH more than you’d expect.  Families who make above this cut-off, must either rely on their personal savings and investments or merit scholarships given to their students by the colleges to which they apply.  The caveat here is that many schools do not offer any merit awards, and most merit awards don’t come which huge figures attached, so it’s important to plan accordingly BEFORE your child falls in love with an unaffordable school.

Enter the urgency for middle class relief.  We understand the struggle families face when looking down the barrel of almost $70,000 a year tuition; it’s unfathomable.  But Dr Dean wants students who might consider engaging in this contract with New York (yes, it’s a contract, with fine print and obligations just like any other) to understand the nuances of the negotiation.  “My fear is that students won’t understand the terms they’re signing on for.” says Dean . . .“New York is not giving this money away  and it’s really much less than a small school’s financial aid package disguised as free tuition.”  Just what are the obligations within the contract?

For one, students must not only maintain a certain GPA (which is more difficult for some than others) but they MUST graduate in 4 years.  They must also agree to stay in New York for the 4 years after graduation.  More importantly, students will still need to pay room and board and fees which will likely equal $19,000/year at most 4-year SUNY colleges…That’s not free!  So on the surface, this doesn’t seem too egregious, right? What looks good when signing on the dotted line as a high school senior may become a deal breaker as the years unfold.

Four years is, of course, the “norm” for an undergraduate degree.  However, a large percentage of college students are unable to complete their studies within that time period.  The facts speak for themselves.  According to USA Today… “at flagship research public universities, the on-time graduation rate is only 36%. Only 50 of the more than 580 public four-year institutions have graduation rates above 50%.  And students who do NOT graduate on time end up spending 40% more on their education; yes, FORTY.

Dean goes on to explain one of his major concerns “If you do the math, by increasing the student body through the Excelsior program, there will be even more students vying for the necessary classes to graduate;  more students and fewer classes will equal fewer students graduating in 4 years.”  We hear this often from parents whose children chose large universities; their child is unable to get into a class that the school has mandated they take for graduation.  There is no way around this issue and the free tuition program will compound it.

To be clear, it is not always the inability to gain access to upper level classes that prevents an on-time diploma; transferring is another huge issue that puts the brakes on a 4 year graduation goal.  All of this needs to be considered when weighing your options.  Keep in mind, transferring is an expensive mistake.  Should your child attend a SUNY school and be miserable, they’ll be “on the hook” for the tuition they took not to mention the cost of non-transferable credits to the next institution.  “Fit” is still the name of the game no matter what your financial outlook.

“We want families to continue to look at this process holistically.” Dean advises cautiously.   “While ‘free tuition’ may at first be enticing, in the end, a private school may be a better fit for your child academically and socially.  Free makes for a great sound bite, but you need to dig deeper.”  The possible upside to the introduction of the Excelsior Scholarship is that now, smaller private schools will be forced to take the public competition into consideration; remember, schools are businesses too.  So keep all your cards on the table.   Keep in mind that the aid from a private school WILL cover room & board, whereas the NY plan will only take tuition out of the equation and that is in the neighborhood of $6700.  When you add R&B and SUNY fees, you’re up in the neighborhood of $18,000.  If you dissected a private college’s offer it might look like this:  $60,000 sticker price; families EFC at $22,000,  financial aid package comes out to $36,000, out of pocket expense to you is $24,000 with no strings attached.   Thus it is possible, even probable that a family whose income is $125,000 would pay about as much – perhaps even less at a private college, than they would at a SUNY school.  We’ve had families who, when the process began, never imagined they could afford the private school their child dreamed about but ultimately they were awarded enough to swing the dream school without breaking the bank.

New York has done a great job at marketing this tuition program right at the nerve center of the problem.  The middle class has been struggling and they’re ready for some real relief.  However, that can come in many forms and we don’t want our clients jumping into something they’ll later regret.  Like anything else in life, it’s wise to review all the facts, know your student well and assess all options based on more than the word “free.” We do this with all the families under our care and have guided thousands of them to happy college careers.