N.Y. gets 75,000 applications for free tuition program

BUFFALO — About 75,000 people who applied for New York’s first-in-the-nation tuition-free college program are finding out whether they will start the fall semester without a tuition bill to pay, state officials said Thursday.

“It feels absolutely terrific,” Binghamton University student Natan Nassir, of Great Neck, said after learning Thursday that the state will pick up his tab for any tuition not covered by other financial aid.

New York set aside $87 million for the Excelsior Scholarship program for the first year after projecting about 23,000 people would qualify. Although more than three times that number had applied before Friday’s application deadline, state officials stood by the initial estimate, saying many who applied would not qualify for or accept an award.

“The fact that New York has received more than 75,000 applications demonstrates the critical need for the Excelsior Scholarship and the widespread enthusiasm of students across the state,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who proposed the program. “We look forward to enabling more New Yorkers to attend our public colleges this fall without the crushing burden of student debt weighing them down.”

After other state and federal financial aid is applied, the initiative covers the balance of State University of New York or City University of New York tuition for full-time, in-state students from families earning $100,000 or less. The income threshold will rise to $125,000 over three years.

In return, students must live and work in New York for as many years as they receive the benefit. If not, they’ll have to repay it as a no-interest loan, a provision meant to ensure New York benefits from the workforce it trains. That provision, however, has been criticized as too restrictive.

“I can see how some people are hesitant since in two to four years, they don’t know where they want to be. They don’t know … what job offers they’re going to get,” said incoming freshman Hunter Perez of Horseheads, who will use the scholarship while studying architecture at the University at Buffalo, which is part of the SUNY system. “But I plan on staying in New York.”

He and others said they weren’t told a specific award amount. The state will pay the colleges at the end of the semester to ensure scholarship recipients fulfill the requirements, which include earning 30 credits a year. The maximum award is $5,500 but many will receive less because of the program’s “last-dollar” structure, which first counts aid from the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, federal Pell grants and other financial awards.

That setup has been criticized as doing little to help the neediest students, whose tuition already is covered by other aid but still struggle with room and board, books and other expenses not covered by the Excelsior program. Tuition makes up about $26,000 of the total $83,000 tab for four years of study at State University of New York.

A similar program for private college students had received about 4,650 applications by Thursday. Only about a third of New York’s nearly 100 eligible private colleges are participating in the Enhanced Tuition Award program, which requires them to provide matching funds for a portion of the costs.


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