What Free Tuition Can’t Buy: Students Need More Than Scholarships to Prep for College


Governor Andrew Cuomo, said to be positioning himself for a run at the White House in 2020, recently announced the Excelsior Scholarship program, which will make state college tuition free for New Yorkers whose households earn less than $125,000 annually. The program is considered a “last dollar” plan, meaning it will cover financial gaps left by students’ aid packages, including the state’s Tuition Assistance Program and federal Pell Grants. Several other cities and states host similar programs or soon will, including Tennessee, Rhode Island, Oregon — even humble Kalamazoo, Michigan, where a group of private, anonymous donors has paid the full cost of tuition at any state college for all of the city’s high school graduates since 2005.

Virtually everyone agrees on the necessity of making college affordable for more people. Student debt nationwide surged to more than $1.4 trillion this year; the average student debt load for New York residents in 2015 was $32,200. But critics have pointed out that the neediest students — those who already qualify for the Tuition Assistance Program and Pell Grants, aid directed at individuals and families with income between $10,000 and $80,000 — may still require loans to pay for housing and other mandatory fees.

And there are some, including Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, chair of the Higher Education Committee, and the Empire Center, a conservative think tank, who have questioned the governor’s cost estimate, which they’ve set at $163 million over the next two years. Indeed, the New York City Independent Budget Office estimates that it would cost as much as $232 million to eliminate tuition at CUNY community colleges alone.

Moreover, some experts say scholarships don’t solve two crucial obstacles many students face on the way to a college degree: academic underpreparedness and the lack of extramural support systems. In 2014, 78 percent of city graduates at CUNY community colleges took remedial courses. And at the high school level, there is much work to do.

“A good number of schools are graduating kids that are not academically prepared to go to college,” said Rhea Wong, executive director of Breakthrough New York, a nonprofit that begins working with low-income, high-achieving students in the seventh grade and supports them through college. By Breakthrough’s standards, just thirty of the city’s more than four hundred public high schools are college prep. And many — or even most — schools lack the college counselors to help every kid prepare. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent call for fourteen thousand volunteer mentors for high school students could help, says Wong, but without ensuring that mentors make personal, lasting connections with students (and without improving outcomes at every city school), it’s reduced to “good intentions with clumsy follow-through.”

Cuomo would do well to heed the example set in Tennessee, where all high school graduates are eligible for five semesters of tuition-free community college — a $10.6 million commitment in 2015. The system started off much smaller than it is now, however: first, in 2008, as a privately funded scholarship for students in Knox County, an urban district home to Knoxville, then growing in 2014 as part of Governor Bill Haslam’s campaign to increase the number of college graduates there from 32 percent to 55 over ten years. After the statewide expansion, Tennessee’s college-going rate swelled by nearly 5 percent in the first year — more than in the previous seven years combined. But officials quickly learned just how unprepared many students were to be there.

In 2016, 26 percent of high school graduates nationwide were considered “college ready,” as measured by their ACT scores. In Tennessee, the number was just 20 percent. Some districts performed even worse: 11 percent in Nashville and a sobering 7 percent in Shelby County, anchored by Memphis. Nearly 70 percent of community college freshmen in Tennessee require remedial coursework. According to Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, only 28 percent of students who need remedial classes earn degrees.

So education officials there got to work. Tennessee Promise students agree to mandatory college coaching with the state’s partner organization, Tennessee Achieves, which pairs students with counselors who closely monitor their academic progress. The Summer Bridge program offers free, three-week intensive courses, taught by college professors, to underperforming students. The state also increased funding streams, in the form of grants between $75,00 and $140,000, for universities accepting Promise students. In 2016, 89 percent of participants in Summer Bridge tested out of remedial courses, according to Krissy DeAlejandro, executive director of Tennessee Achieves.

Yet another partner program aligns college remediation coursework with high school classes to help students test out of them, and the state now allows students to take regular classes simultaneously, to keep them from getting trapped for semesters on end in coursework that doesn’t count for credits. “You can’t have a conversation about increasing the number of kids entering the [college] pipeline without coupling it with some kind of support system…it wouldn’t work,” said DeAlejandro.

As for Cuomo’s plan, recent state budget announcements included a $1 billion bump in education aid that could go toward needed supports for the scholarship, a cumulative 31 percent increase over six years, according to Frank Sobrino, a spokesman from the governor’s office. The funding also includes $50 million for community schools, $35 million for after-school programs, and $5.3 million for early-college high schools.

“Excelsior Scholarships will create an opportunity for New Yorkers to succeed no matter what zip code they come from,” Sobrino said. But thus far, the Excelsior Scholarship is just that — a scholarship, with no additional provisions announced yet.

To be sure, some state schools already have programs designed to help low-income students reach graduation, including the major, statewide Educational Opportunity Program, which offers academic and financial support; SUNY Buffalo’s Finish in Four program; and CUNY’s successful Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which offers advisers, financial aid, and MetroCards. While the most recent data from SUNY shows they boast a 49 percent four-year graduation rate, higher than the national average, CUNY’s rates continue to lag, particularly at community colleges, where fewer than 25 percent of students graduate within three years. The best free-college model will evaluate these programs for gaps, and fill them.

Despite these complications, said Wong, the Breakthrough New York director, we shouldn’t “let perfect be the enemy of good.”

“The key thing would be to make an investment in supports alongside lowering the barrier of tuition,” she said. “It’s a big step in the right direction, but it’s not the be-all, end-all.”