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Free tuition plan sparks questions, comments

State Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon outlines the state’s Excelsior Scholarship program during a round-table discussion Tuesday at the North Country Community College in Saranac Lake. Also pictured are, from left, NCCC Dean of Admissions Chris Tacea, college President Steve Tyrell and Lisa Simpson, director of college services for the state Higher Education Services Corporation. (Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

SARANAC LAKE — The head of the Department of Labor and other state officials took questions and comments from parents, guidance counselors and North Country Community College faculty and staff Tuesday during a round-table discussion on New York’s new Excelsior Scholarship program.

Enacted earlier this year, the program provides free tuition at the state’s two- and four-year public colleges and universities for in-state students from families earning up to $125,000 per year.

Labor Department Commissioner Roberta Reardon called the first-in-the-nation program a “game changer” that will help more than 940,000 families. She noted that it covers the “last mile” of tuition, beyond what isn’t covered by grants or scholarships like the PELL or Tuition Assistance programs.

But there are a lot of strings attached. Excelsior doesn’t cover the cost of room and board. Students must take 30 credits each year to maintain eligibility. One of the biggest strings is that graduates must work and live in New York for the same number of years they received financial assistance from the scholarship. If they leave the state, they have to pay the money back at zero percent interest.

The goal of the residency requirement, Reardon said, is to help improve the state’s economy.

Chuck Van Anden, a nursing professor at North Country Community College, asks a question about the state’s plan to offer free tuition to two- and four-year public colleges and universities during Tuesday’s forum. Also pictured are, from left, North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi, NCCC Foundation Director Diana Fortune and Bruce Rowe, a humanities professor at the college. (Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

“We want the state to be vibrant. We want the economy to be enriched as much as possible,” she said. “The students of the state are the future workers. We’re investing in that part of the state’s infrastructure. You’re as important as a bridge or a road, and we’re gong to put some money behind that to make sure you can be successful in this state.”

Chuck VanAnden, a soon-to-be-retiring nursing professor at the college, applauded the effort to help students, but he said he was concerned about students who might not have an immediate career path.

“We’re educating people trying to broaden their horizons,” he said. “At the same time, we’re stuck in the conundrum where you have to do it in two years or four years, and you’re really not allowing for the growth of the person to pursue their vision in life. I worry about that. It seems to be more tailored for people who have a real focus in what they want to do and not for a student broadening their horizons.”

Several questions were raised about the fact that the Excelsior Program doesn’t apply to certificate programs, which the college offers a lot of. These are often programs that lead into specific careers, noted Meredith Chapman, North Country’s associate director for admissions.

“We think that about 3 percent of our students would be eligible (for Excelsior), should they apply,” she said. “If they included certificate programs, I think it would be closer to 10 percent. I would hope they’d consider laddered certificate programs that lead into associate and bachelor degree programs. It’s just unfortunate to exclude all those people.”

North Country Community College humanities professor Shir Filler, center, speaks during Tuesday’s forum on the state’s Excelsior Scholarship program. Listening, from left, are college associate director for admissions Meredith Chapman, and Dustin Stover, a counselor for the Malone Central School District. (Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

“That is something we’re looking into,” said Lisa Simpson of the state Higher Education Services Corporation. “We’re going to take that back to see if down the road we can add in certificate programs because that is a big component of higher education.”

Questions were also raised about how college credit earned by high school students would be accounted for in the Excelsior Program. North Country has a large “bridge” program where high school students can earn college credit.

Simpson said credits from high school Advanced Placement classes or college-level classes can be used to help meet Excelsior’s 30-credit-per-year requirement.

“We call those students are superstars, and we don’t want them to be penalized,” she said.

Asked how the state will know whether students who’ve graduated with an Excelsior Scholarship are staying in New York after graduation, Simpson said documentation would have to be filed each year, like with other programs that have a service requirement. She also said there are provisions being worked on for economic hardship and other unexpected contingencies that could force someone who received the free tuition to leave the state.

North Country Community College President Steve Tyrell applauded the effort to reduce costs for students to attend college. He noted that the college also offers free tuition to Essex and Franklin county residents with a high school GPA of 85 of higher. It also recently signed an agreement with Paul Smith’s College that allows any North Country graduate to get a private college education at Paul Smith’s at a public education price.

Reardon and other state officials said this is the “beta test” of the Excelsior Program, and there will be a lot of issues to be worked out. She also acknowledged there’s a “very narrow” application window for the program for the 2017-18 year, and it comes after many high school students have made decisions about where they’re going to college in the fall. Applications for Excelsior will be available June 7 and have to be finished by July 21.

To register for an Excelsior Scholarship application visit, www.hesc.ny.gov.

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