The Excelsior Scholarship, CUNY and the students in between
Lewis Diep works hard. He’s currently serving as a senator in Baruch College’s Undergraduate Student Government. He’s the former president of the United Chinese Language Association, one of the largest clubs the college has to offer. And of the roughly 15,000 students on campus, he’s one of the few — less than 3 percent — who has an Excelsior Scholarship.
When he first saw that New York state was offering certain students in the CUNY and SUNY system what was called “free tuition,” he was hopeful that the scholarship would help ease some of the financial burden his parents faced.
As Diep, 21, quickly learned, however, the low percentage of students who receive the scholarship is not a fluke.
Only 20,086 Excelsior Scholarships in total were awarded in 2017, according to a report from nonprofit Center for an Urban Future, with 4,155, or 20.7 percent of scholarships going toward students at CUNY colleges. Out of the roughly 64,000 applications the state received, 44,000 were denied with 83 percent of denials stemming from the student not having sufficient credits.
The credit requirement nearly prevented Diep from receiving the scholarship.
“I was kind of bummed out because if I don't have that scholarship, I have to kind of pay out of pocket,” Diep said about his near miss.
Though the state trumpets the scholarship as a boost for middle class New Yorkers like Diep, it is unclear whom it actually helps and — and as Diep has come to wonder — whether the help comes at too high a price.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the Excelsior Scholarship in April 2017, with scholarship applications opening for that year’s fall semester.
Of the roughly 461,000 families with college-age students in New York City, 84.3 percent were eligible for the scholarship, according to the statement released by the governor’s office the day the scholarship 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.
For CUNY especially, more scholarships are always good news. 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.
These students, however, are not the scholarship’s main focus.
Low-income students can be covered by Pell Grants or New York’s Tuition Assistance Program, which, like the scholarship, will give students money to pay for college based on financial need without having to be paid back.
Pell Grant recipients at CUNY number 61.5 percent and can get a maximum of $6,095, which amounts to 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, limiting options for middle-class students who fall just above that threshold.
The Excelsior Scholarship was designed to help someone like Diep.
“The cutoff for FAFSA — I didn’t make it because [my parents] made like a little bit too much,” he said. When he applied in 2017, students with a household income of less than $100,000 could receive the scholarship; the cap will be raised to $125,000 by the 2019 school year.
To receive the scholarship, a student must also be a resident of the state and a student at a CUNY or SUNY and have plans to live and work in the state following graduation for the length of time the student receives the scholarship.
One requirement — taking 30 credits worth of classes a school year — proved to almost be his undoing.
“When I handed in my transcript [the Financial Aid Office] looked over, they’re like, ‘Oh, you don't qualify for it because you dropped a class,’” Diep said, referring to the fact that he dropped a class the semester he applied for the scholarship, ensuring that he would not receive 30 credits for the year.
As many students discovered, the scholarship’s credit requirements apply retroactively to past years at CUNY — if a student did not complete 30 credits in a year before receiving the scholarship, they were automatically ineligible. Students can catch up on missing credits to apply for the scholarship in the future but must be completely on track to finishing a two- or four-year degree in order to do so.
“I think the ‘scholarship’ has been nothing more than a talking point for Gov. Cuomo and the state legislature,” Liam Giordano, a Baruch delegate to the University Student Senate, said. The senate gathers students from all CUNY schools to advocate for students about issues like the scholarship.
“The scholarship itself is an unsolvable maze for many students who attend public universities in [New York]. They're lured in by the promises made by the [governor] but consistently let down.”
Diep later realized, however, that he could use his AP credits from high school to fulfill the credit requirement. “It took me like around like — what is it — 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 or they didn't really go through like in-depth process.”
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 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 may be limited in his options. The scholarship would turn into a loan that he would have to pay off.
Ultimately, though, Diep is grateful to be counted among the scholarship recipients and says that it took a lot of stress off of him and his parents.
He encourages everyone to apply for the scholarship. If you don’t fit the criteria? “You have to wait till the system change for you or you can make the change,” Diep said.
“That's basically all we can do. And if they listen to us and they make that change, like your friends in the future or like your kids in the future could benefit from it.”